Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Matter of Lying

“Always in this region at about this time they began to speak the truth at each other. The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being-- it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”

No writer of the twentieth century quite mastered the heartbreak of married old men in love with younger women in wartime frontier posts like Graham Greene did. The Quiet American is more famous (due the fact it too is excellent, it was made into a decent movie in 2002, and that it is the first novel about the Vietnam War), but The Heart of the Matter-- a surprisingly tense, bitter telling of a policeman, Major Scobie, an honest do-right old-school type in a loveless marriage delving into lies in order to pursue a relationship that brings him some happiness in some godforsaken colonial town in the middle of World War II-- might be the best written book of Greene's wonderful oeuvre.

Scobie is married to Louise, a high-strung devotedly Catholic bibliophile who doesn't do idle talk well and is a bit of a pariah among plain-spoken bureaucratic types.  When the Europeans gather for gossip and spirits, she is distinctly uncomfortable and nearly always unhappy. However, a recent arrival on the lethargic colonial scene, Wilson, has a secret love of poetry and falls in love with her; so much so he is openly contemptuous of Scobie, whom he might be spying on and reporting for transgressions. Louise isn't quite flattered by Wilson's clumsy amorous declarations and pushes her husband to find some means to get her on a boat out of the colony, preferably to Cape Town, South Africa where she has friends (England being too dangerous to return to during the war).

A dated photo of Freetown, Sierra Leone, 
where Greene admitted to being the setting of The Heart of the Matter

Scobie, a by-the-books honest cop who never learned how to accept the appropriate bribe resorts to a loan from Yusuf, a Syrian trader with a bad rep in town and who may or may not be smuggling diamonds. The loan is straightforward and legal, and Yusuf is unfailingly polite and friendly, but to be on any kind of business terms with Yusuf, especially for a police officer, is suspicious. But with the loan, Scobie is able to send Louise away. Her emotional instability no longer a living tension, Scobie, while in debt, looks forward to a relatively uncomplicated life.

However, there is a ferry accident up the river. One of the survivors, a Mrs. Helen Rolt, newly widowed and too traumatized to make the long return to England stays on in the town and the rapport she has with Scobie, a man twenty years her senior, develops into a clandestine love affair. Scobie promises to see to her needs devotedly, only to have Louise return early to the colony complicating his life, as is his business with Yusuf until the policeman's moral character is stretched to a breaking point.

By the end of WWII, it had become difficult to rationalize the existence of the Christian God, for what kind of Omnipotent Force would have permitted the outrageous atrocities overwhelming the world throughout the 20th century? Like Ingmar Bergman's doubting priests and spiritually fraught christian knights, Greene's heroes are often men who know all the words of the Lord's Prayers, but who have lost all faith in their meanings. Godless and isolated thus, Scobie has his own moral playbook, but the pages are torn out one by one in an enveloping complex of lies.  In his futile attempt to please everyone and compartmentalize his feelings, Scobie becomes completely unmoored and his nervous breakdown has a palpable sense of doom.

The author, Graham Greene, 
around the time of the publication of The Heart of the Matter

There are few novels that capture the painful tedium of loving your partner without being the least bit in love as The Heart of the Matter does. A loveless marriage is a horrible thing to bear and Greene brings an immediacy to the day-to-day walking-on-eggshells hopelessness: “People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person's habitual misery.” It is lies that unravel Scobie, but he'd long inured himself to reality, forced pleasantries with his wife, whom he wholly pitied and loved not at all. Our hero is a noble failure, but there is a bit of him in all of us, trying for goodness even when exhausted, even when it would be so easy to just give up and move on. "No man is an island," the poet John Donne famously writes, but then Greene writes, less romantically, but perhaps more truthfully, “When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...”

Devastating, isn't it?

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