“He sat down in his own room under the handcuffs and began to write.”
THAT PAIR OF RUSTY CUFFS hangs "like an old hat" above the desk of Major Henry Scobie in Graham Greene's 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter. The shackles symbolize the sense of responsibility that hangs over Scobie as a husband, Catholic, and colonial police chief in British West Africa during World War II. But they also signal Greene's own inescapable sense of responsibility as a writer. Like Scobie, Greene approached his work as a function of conscience as well as conscientiousness, a duty as prosaic as accurate note taking and as imperative as justice.
It was the prosaic sense of writerly responsibility that first drew me to The Heart of the Matter. As an author of historically based novels, I try to get my facts straight by reading the broadest possible variety of texts written by and about individuals who've lived in circumstances similar to those of my characters. Currently, I'm working on a story set in a colonial outpost during World War II; The Heart of the Matter is set in 1942 in a similar outpost in West Africa, where Greene actually was a wartime spy for the Allies. I turned to this novel in search of information and insight, to get a sense of the war as it was experienced far from the major battlefields and concentration camps of Europe and Asia. Greene's work is indeed rich in precise period details. I learned, for instance, that a used Morris sedan in the colonies of the early forties could be purchased for between £150 and 400; that Brits in the tropics wore mosquito boots inside and out; that Band-Aids of that era were called Elastoplasts; and that "native saboteurs" in the colonies were both employed and feared as wartime mercenaries. But there was more. Much more.
The facts in Greene's fiction resonate not just historically, but also philosophically and theologically. Political exigencies within the narrative become prisms for personal choice. Layers of power and official status vibrate with the moral uncertainties that rank and title can't quite conceal. Information serves both a literal and a metaphoric purpose, as Greene's interpretation distills from his wartime experience the deeper truth of what he called "the human situation."
"This is the original Tower of Babel," the local cable censor announces early in The Heart of the Matter. "West Indians, Africans, real Indians, Syrians, Englishmen, Scotsmen in the Office of Works, Irish priests, French priests, Alsatian priests.” Greene's unnamed colony has no common language, color, caste, nationality, or loyalty. What it does have are divisions exacerbated by war and Empire that underscore the universality of human frailty. "A French officer in a stained white uniform" appears, for example, "courteous and unapproachable, but all the time his left eyelid flickered a message of doubt and distress" as he delivered seven stretcher cases, British survivors of a shipwreck, from Vichy territory just across the river.
In such a world it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish enemy from ally. A fat, sweaty Portuguese captain hiding a letter addressed to Germany persuades Scobie that the intended recipient in Leipzig, one Frau Groener, is merely the captain's unfortunate daughter, "as graceless as himself […] a daughter who may save him at the last.” Scobie's job is to report the letter, yet he burns it, in direct violation of his wartime responsibility. "Against the beautiful and the clever and the successful," he reasons, "one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive: then the millstone weighs on the breast." See the enemy up close, strip away the trappings and the propaganda, and one must contend with conscience. For Scobie, the resulting conflict is an agony. For Greene, the resulting conflict is truth.
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Causes Aimee Liu Supports
PEN USA, Academy for Eating Disorders, Women for Women, UNICEF, Amnesty International