The Heart of the Matter
I visited Greeneland after years. And I am struck by how much an outdated religious sensibility still has the power to affect.
Scobie is a police officer in an obscure African colony during the war. The Vichy French are neighbours and a clandestine trade in industrial diamonds means an air of suspicion hangs around the colony. Colonial Africa is a character as much as any of the others – the heat, the colonials with their ‘boys’ and pink gin and the club and the gossip and their deference to hierarchy. Scobie is a good man, an honest police officer, with a faded wife and a genuine love of the land and people he has governed for over 15 years. He is also a converted Catholic and that proves the defining characteristic taking the story forward.
Pity and sympathy are Scobie’s routes to love. He loves his wife Louise best when he is able to pity her disappointment at his not getting a promotion (something that does not really bother him). So, to accommodate her wish to get away from the local bitchiness, he borrows money from an under-suspicion Syrian trader, to buy her a passage to South Africa. When she is gone, he falls in love (or should we say, falls in pity again) with a ship-wrecked young widow who has lost everything. When Louise is back, he forces himself to go to communion, without confessing – again, engendering more guilt in his Catholic heart. The affair and the borrowed money prove to be a heady cocktail that spiral Scobie towards that most un-Catholic of emotions – despair
Wilson proves to be Scobie’s counterpoint. The clerk is actually a spy sent to investigate the trade in diamonds. He is the colonial who visits the whorehouses, has no pity for the locals in their petty larceny, whose rigid sense of right and wrong has no place for Scobie’s tolerance. It is a point-counterpoint that is often present in Greene’s novels. The good man driven to wrong-doing by his inherent ‘goodness’ and the bad man with his rigid correctness ending up doing wrong.
Nobody does Catholic guilt and despair better than Greene. When Scobie chooses his own damnation in order to stop hurting others, Greene asks that question that must haunt Catholics at some time or the other – what is a good Catholic? Is that rigid sense of sin more Catholic than a sense of sympathy and humanity for the other? Father Rank, the Catholic priest has truly the last word in Scobie’s case. As he tells Louise at the end of the book, when she despairs over the state of Scobie’s soul, “It may seem an odd thing to say – when a man’s as wrong as he was – but I think, from what I saw of him, that he really loved God.”
It is easy to find silliness in this Catholic sense of sin. And it is easy to get impatient with a character like Scobie. As Orwell in a damning critique of the book says, “Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier. If he really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in Hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women. And one might add that if he were the kind of man we are told he is - that is, a man whose chief characteristic is a horror of causing pain - he would not be an officer in a colonial police force.”
But it is a testament to Greene’s masterful storytelling that even if you agree with Orwell on a rational level, you still feel a deep sense of liking and sympathy for Scobie. You live his pain and his despair. The Heart of the Matter is not my favourite Greene novel, but it has enough in it to let me rank it as one of my better reads in recent times.