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Book Title: Суть дела|
The author of the book: Graham Greene
Edition: АСТ Москва
Date of issue: 2009
ISBN: No data
ISBN 13: No data
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 29.63 MB
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Reader ratings: 7.7
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I remember a striking image from a previous novel of Graham Greene, of vultures settling to roost on the iron rooftops of a nowhere town in a third world country (it's the introduction to "The Power and the Glory"). When I came across an identical image in the first pages of the present novel, I knew I was letting myself in for another traumatic ride through the maze of a fallible human mind, I knew I would struggle with depression and moral ambivalence and with a loss of faith, yet I was also aware that the novel will hold me in its thrall until the last page, like compulsively watching the grief and destruction left behind by a trainwreck or by a suicide bombing.
He felt almost intolerably lonely. On either side of the school the tin roofs sloped towards the sea, and the corrugated iron above his head clanged and clattered as a vulture alighted.
A mirror image reinforces the tonality of the novel in its final pages:
They didn't kiss; it was too soon for that but they sat in the hollow room, holding hands, listening to the vultures clambering on the iron roof.
Between these macabre bookends, a man named Scobie will be torn apart in his love, in his integrity and in his Catholic faith, in a sweltering tropical town on the coast of Sierra Leone, during the larger world tempest that was the second world war. The setting, the historical period and the damned protagonist made me toy with the idea of drawing parallels between Major Scobie and Geoffrey Firmin from Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece "Under the Volcano". Both writers taped their inner demons in order to create their memorable expatriates, both explore the theme of self-destruction in the face of personal failure, yet Scobie and Firmin have almost nothing in common when it gets down to the root cause of their misfortune.
If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?
My heart went out for the Consul, a victim of an excess of love and of misguided faith in his peers, a man who would rather drink himself to death than live in a world without love. Scobie's tribulations rang hollow when his inner good intentions didn't translate in commendable actions. There is something rotten in his rationing chain, something that will drive him deeper and deeper into a spider's web of lies, deceit and betrayals (view spoiler)[ culminating in the assassination of his trusted coloured personal servant (hide spoiler)] . The author gives us the key to Scobie in his introduction, by drawing the reader's attention to the difference between pity and true compasion, between a true forgiving and selfless Christian and one who is driven by a need to feel superior or by a twisted fascination with ugliness and misfortune. For example, Scobie may claim to be forgiving, but he secretly despises the man who once did him wrong:
Ever since Fellowes had snatched his house, Scobie had done his best to like the man - it was one of the rules by which he set his life, to be a good loser.
I love failure: I can't love success. confesses at one point Major Scobie in self-justification, putting the lie to the earlier image he painted for the reader as a caring and devoted husband:
Fifteen years form a face, gentleness ebbs with experience, and he was always aware of his own responsibility. He had led the way: the experience that had come to her was the experience selected by himself. He had formed her face. [...] The less he needed Louise the more conscious he became of his responsibility for her happiness. When he called her name he was crying like Canute against a tide - the tide of her melancholy and disappointment.
The issue is made even clearer when Scobie sets his eyes on a young war widow rescued from a torpedoed ship in the Atlantic: Scobie is in love with his feelings of power, not with the actual person.
He had no sense of responsibility towards the beautiful and the graceful and the intelligent. They could find their own way. It was the face for which nobody would go out of his way, the face that would never cath the covert look, the face which would soon be used to rebuffs and indifference that demanded his allegiance. The word 'pity' is used as loosely as the word 'love': the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.
I did feel a sort of sympathy and understanding for Scobie in the beginning of the novel, proof of the indisputable talent of Greene to capture the inner landscape of a weak man struggling to overcome his sins. I even gave him some leeway for circumstances beyond his control, like the devastating loss of his only daughter at a very young age. But, like the lapsed priest from "The Power and the Glory", Scobie goes and sins again and again instead of asking for redemption and of mending his ways. He may be honest in his prayers and in his dreams, but he is definitely a sinner in his actions. As Helen exclaims in despair of Scobie's inability to chose between his wife and his mistress:
If there's one thing I hate is your Catholicism. I suppose it comes of having a pious wife. It's so bogus. If you really believed you wouldn't be here.
Graham Greene deserves all the praise and the glory for writing these ambiguous, soul searching novels centered on morally corrupt and frankly despicable characters that somehow still capture the reader's imagination and illustrate a universal need for redemption and forgiveness. Scobie, in my opinion, dug his own grave and had an immense capacity for lying to himself ("I didn't know myself that's all."), yet for most of the novel I believed his struggle was honest and well intended. I am reminded of the parable of the stone and should be in a more forgiving mood towards Scobie when looking back at my own past mistakes and at the hurt I had caused to the people I loved (view spoiler)[ thankfully, it didn't get anywhere near murder (hide spoiler)], so my conclusion and the genius of Greene is to make us aware of the Scobie inside each of us.
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, and love died too perhaps or changed into this painfull affection, loyalty, pity ...
Scobie believes we are unable to truly know another person, and maybe this is one of the reasons he will fail - he is locked inside his own mind. But, like I mentioned before, he doesn't live in a perfect world, and his depression has roots that are part inherent human nature and part the crazy times and wild places he finds himself thrown in.
What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery.
Looking beyond the personal drama of Scobie, I feel the need to remark that Graham Greene's prose is outstanding out also in regards to capturing the sense of place and the elusive, ambivalent nature of love - a balancing act between clear eyed, lucid intellectual attraction and atavistic, subconscious lust. Greene put his actual experience of living (and spying) in Sierra Leone during the war to good use in the novel. The tensions with the French collaborationist neighbors, with German interests in the region and with neutral Portuguese smuggling of diamonds are convincing, as are the snatches of dialogue and the whole tropical lethargy of the expatriates:
This is the original Tower of Babel. West Indians, Africans, real Indians, Syrians, Englishmen, Scotsmen in the Office of Works, Irish priests, French priests, Alsatian priests.
Part of Greene secret of success is for me his empathy for the local population, his fascination with the less sophisticated societies that may be living closer to nature and are more honest in their likes and dislikes.
Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pie-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn't had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worse: you din't love a pose, a pretty dress, a sentiment artfully assumed.
Some of the phrases and gestures strike me as extremely close to my own recent experiences of living as an expat in one of these countries. Others are embarassing reminders of the ugly undercurrent of racism and imperial arrogance that brought down the English Empire and that I still catch echoes of from some of my colleagues today:
"Been here long?"
"Eighteen bloody months."
"Going home soon?"
I already knew (from "The End of the Affair") that Greene is incredibly poignant and quotable when he describes human passion, and I was not disappointed here:
What they had both thought was safety proved to have been the camouflage of an enemy who works in terms of friendship, trust and pity.
Passion though tends to be insufficient to carry the heavy baggage of Scobie's past mistakes, defeats and hesitations:
Although they could touch each other it was as if the whole coastline of a continent was already between them; their words were like the stilted sentences of a bad letter writer.
In the end, Scobie must face his demons alone, neither women nor church nor career being proper substitutes for the huge empty spaces inside Scobie's soul:
I don't want to keep you, Father. There are other people waiting. I know these are just fancies. But I feel - empty. Empty.
It sometimes seemed to him that all he could share with them was his despair.
I wish I could explore more the religious implications and parables of Scobie's tragedy (I see Yousef the Syrian as an incarnation of the Devil offering the world, and Scobie as the sinner who surrenders in much too easily to temptation). That's what re-reads are for, and I believe I will feel the pull of Greene's prose and of his tormented characters soon enough. The author makes his argument crystal clear in one the last one liners to be picked in the text: the fact that each man is unique and should be judged on his or her own merits, to the particulars of his or her case, and not by any standard, cold and inflexible ancient code of ethics:
The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart.
final note: the current novel also includes in a moment of epihany for Scobie a rendition of one of my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, although the translation in my edition is a rather poor one. I will close my review instead with the original:
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde, aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.
Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses
Fallen, undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.
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Read information about the authorHenry Graham Greene, OM, CH was an English novelist, short story writer, playwright, screenplay writer, travel writer and critic whose works explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Greene combined serious literary acclaim with wide popularity.
Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a “Catholic novelist” rather than as a “novelist who happened to be Catholic,” Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels: Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, and The Power and the Glory. Works such as The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor also show an avid interest in the workings of international politics and espionage.
(Excerpted from Wikipedia)
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