“The Heart of the Matter” by Graham Greene (1948) – 255 pages
“Doing nothing, badly.” – Graham Greene
No writer did comic desolation better than Graham Greene. I recently re-read one of his classic novels, “The Heart of the Matter” which takes place during World War II in a west African British colony which fortunately for it remains nameless. The war is far away; the British empire is winding down, almost finished, but the people here, especially the British, don’t know it yet.
Major Scobie, our main character in “The Heart of the Matter”, is the number 2 man in the customs office. Even when the number 1 man leaves, he does not get promoted, because then there would be no one who could do the important customs work that Scobie does. It doesn’t bother Scobie very much that he is passed by for promotion, but it upsets his wife Louise. Louise and Scobie have reached that stage in their marriage where they annoy each other constantly, but it is comfortable except when Louise calls Scobie by her pet name for him, ‘Ticky’.
It is extremely hot in this colony, a breeding ground for all kinds of bugs and vermin. Termites and other wood-boring insects eat the exposed wood in the houses which then allow the cockroaches and many kinds of beetles to enter the rooms. Soon enough, small lizards and mice also get in. One of the favorite pastimes of the colonials is inventing games which involve killing bugs. There is really very little for anyone to do here except at the post clubhouse where the post bar and restaurant provide a refuge, except that you might run in to obnoxious British colonial types like Wilson.
The actual natives of the colony all work as servants for the British for next to nothing, and the British colonials call all the native men ‘Boy’ no matter what age they are. There are two Syrian businessmen, Tallit and Yusef, who control most of the trade in the colony, and these two are very competitive. They report on each other, accusing each other of smuggling diamonds which is one of the main moneymaking opportunities here. One smuggling ruse is to get someone’s pet parrot to swallow the diamonds. All Scobie can do to determine if the parrot is actually carrying diamonds is to cut the parrot up and see what is in its craw. Of course there may not have been any diamonds in the first place.
Graham Greene has a way of describing these circumstances that makes me laugh, so when the story switches from comic desolation to real desolation, it is difficult to keep a straight face. Scobie’s Catholicism plays an important role in this novel, and you can tell that Greene takes his religion seriously. Somehow this serious religious talk doesn’t fit in real smoothly with the rest of the story, but it only lasts for a few pages, and by the end of the novel Greene is comfortably back to his normal tongue-in-cheek style.
I read several other reviews of “The Heart of the Matter”, and no one else recognized the comic aspect in the novel. These other reviewers found the novel dramatic, even depressing, but not humorous. “The Heart of the Matter” finished number 40 on the Modern Library list of the Top 100 novels of the 20th century. Just like Scobie, Graham Greene was bypassed, in Greene’s case for the Nobel literary prize.