A tragic but excellent novel by Graham Greene published in 1948. It is the story of Scobie, a Colonial policeman in West Africa during World War II. All of his life Scobie was a dutiful Catholic, but he has very few friends and little money. When he is passed up for promotion his melancholy wife, Louise, decides she needs a vacation from dealing with everything and everyone there and asks if she could take a trip to South Africa.

Scobie does not have enough funds required for his wife’s trip, so he borrows money from Yusef, a merchant suspected of being part of diamond smuggling operation. Scobie and other officers are also in attempt, with the help of a spy named Wilson (who is in love with Scobie’s wife), to bust a group of diamond smugglers in the city. Aware that he is involving himself in risky relations, Scobie nonetheless does it to satisfy his wife. Soon after she leaves, Scobie and his men help the survivors of a shipwreck into their port. It is here he meets Helen Rolt, with whom he soon begins a passionate affair.

Scobie’s feelings of shame about the affair grow steadily worse as it continues. He feels certain he is damned for the sin and loathes himself for having knowingly betrayed his wife – whom he loves – although in the beginning of the novel it appears that Scobie pities his wife Louise and has lost his genuine affection for her. Sadly, after he commits adultery, his love for Louise seems far stronger and clearer and his desire to be a faithful Catholic intensifies.

Eventually his wife writes to him to say that she is returning, and he is completely perplexed about what to do. He feels a tremendous love for both women and wants to make both of them happy. In his desire to prove his love for Helen, Scobie becomes careless about hiding their affair and eventually Yusef and Wilson discover his secret and take advantage of it for their own purposes. Scobie finally makes a decision on what to do next, further securing his damnation.

I very much enjoyed Greene’s writing style and his ability to make a marvelous yet simple paragraph about anything from the squalid, isolated town to the description of an uninspired priest’s character. But the hopelessness! This book is a sordid comment about humanity, and while I found the pervading pessimism to match my own it only served to further harden my despondence.

S’more on the novel:

Greene picked the perfect setting to reinforce the idea of man’s loneliness and alienation. The awful state of West Africa during World War II and the dangerous seas there set it apart from most of the world. The Europeans residing in West Africa were quite isolated. Greene describes it like living in a coffin.

“The houses were white as bones in the moonlight; the quiet streets stretched out on either side like the arms of a skeleton, and the faint sweet smell of flowers lay on the air.”

This passage finely describes a bit of Scobie’s thoughts about life. This thought occurs shortly after discovering an acquaintance, Pemberton, committed suicide.

“What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world full of misery. He had cut down his own needs to a minimum, photographs were put away in drawers, the dead were put out of mind; the razor-strop, a pair of rusty handcuffs for decoration. But one still had one’s eyes, he thought, one’s ears. Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else absolute ignorance.”

When Helen is upset with Scobie for pitying her further into the novel, Scobie despairingly thinks of pity as a constant indelible emotion in life.

“He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was only a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.”

A great book that I would recommend. “The Heart of the Matter” is #40 on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Books: Fiction.

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