My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Greene is interested in the paradoxes that arise from pushing Catholic doctrines or dogma to their extreme logical conclusions. The epigram at the start of the book is a quote from the Catholic author Charles Peguy, who wrote of the selflessness we should have that would damn ourselves if it would save another. This is the apparent motivation of Scobie, the novel’s protagonist. He lives and works in World War II British West Africa, finding satisfaction in a go-nowhere police posting in a desolate port town beautiful for approximately five minutes each day. His wife is as drained and worn down as the town itself. Greene expertly shows the painful pity that motivates Scobie– who simply wants peace– in placating her and keeping her despair at bay. The everyday agony of their relationship, the weariness, the stratagems Scobie undertakes to distract and comfort her, is the driving force of the first third of the novel. Greene’s strength here is in the characters: the pained goodness and heavy generosity of Scobie, the faithfulness of his African servant, the machinations of the Syrian merchants of the town– all live (except for the enigmatic Wilson, who seems flat and patchy throughout the novel) against a sharply drawn background of the cloying West Africa Greene knew from personal experience.
In the novel’s second act, Scobie has found the peace he craved by making possible his wife’s passage to South Africa and settling into his own quiet routine. This peace is shattered by war though (a war which, even at its closest approach, remains a forbidding but distant presence over the horizon) as the survivors of a U-boat attack arrive in Scobie’s world. Here his pity (or what he represents to himself as pity) is captured by a young widow. Their quiet affair– whatever else it may have represented– quickly becomes once again a trap and loss of peace for Scobie, compounded by his wife’s sudden return. Greene has now set the scene for the excruciation of the third act, where the narrative action slows and spirals inward to a claustrophobic focus on the conflict warring within Scobie’s own mind.
Whatever Greene’s eventual and ultimate relation to Catholicism, this is unequivocally one of his Catholic novels, in which the conflict depends on the reader buying into– or at least buying into the character’s buying into– the reality of Catholic belief. Scobie believes he is in mortal sin but knows leaving it would mean abandoning someone who depends on him. He’s like the proverbial donkey starving halfway between two piles of hay, crucified on the horns of a dilemma. Whether divided by hunger, pride, or (as he makes himself believe) duty and pity, he can only conclude that both– that everyone– would be better off without him, who seems only able to cause pain despite his every attempt to avoid inflicting it. By this point of the novel, it’s difficult to have patience with Scobie as a character, yet we never lose faith with Greene as an author. Indeed, the telescoping conflict, in which aspects such as Scobie taking communion in a state of sin take on a heightened, almost delirious and certainly cinematic vividness, give the novel its sharpest moments.
The novel reaches the inescapable conclusion you see coming, but it feels all the more powerful for its inescapability. Scobie is trapped in his own mind, hedged by his own dogma, damned– in the paradox Greene relishes representing– by his own generosity. Greene provides no answers. He leaves us with only questions, which is what prevents the novel collapsing into a simple cautionary morality tale. Whatever Scobie’s motives (because it remains difficult to believe pity alone motivates the affair with the much-younger Helen), he is relatable and vivid in as much as anyone has felt trapped between irreconcilable conclusions, alone and cut off in the web of their beliefs. Whether he’s ultimately damned, he’s lost the peace he craved. In the construction of his isolation and misery– which Greene offers in magnificent detail– we get an illustration of how C. S. Lewis described hell: not as a place you go but as a place you gradually construct around yourself.