The Heart Of The Matter, by Graham Greene
It is not very often that one has to say about a Graham Greene novel that one wishes the main character was more tough-minded, but here is a case where that is definitely true. It is instructive here that the author makes an explicit claim not to have based anyone in his novel on anyone in real life, not least because he claims that the people who could have been upset about it were very helpful to him when he was an OSS officer in Freetown, Sierra Leone during the early part of World War II. Graham Greene had a well-earned reputation for writing about people he actually knew or at least met and knew about, and here we see that this reputation worked against him when he tried to write an imaginary situation that for him had some great degree of moral interest. This novel is a bit melancholy, in that the author’s attempt to draw moral lessons from a poignant situation are hindered by the fact that too many people would be trying to guess who he was writing about. Again, though, this is definitely a case where some tough-mindedness would have done a protagonist good.
The plot of the novel is straightforward enough. Scobie is a “nice guy” assistant commissioner of police in colonial Freetown during the early stages of World War II. He is henpecked by a wife whom he does not love but who claims to love him, who has an admirer in the shady secret service agent Wilson, who writes love poetry dedicated to Louise and thinks everyone is up to no good–probably a stand in for the author. Anyway, Scobie gets involved investigating rival Syrian (Lebanese?) groups of merchants, investigates the case of suicide from someone involved in various border corruption, and generally shows himself to be a pushover. Much of reading this novel is painful, as Louise goes to South Africa and Scobie finds himself a lover in a plain looking young widow who ends up nagging him too. The downfall of the nice guy is pretty evident here, as had Scobie had more backbone he would have been able to avoid putting himself in harm’s way and the path of corruption regarding money and romantic woes. One could almost imagine this character walking around humming 98 Degrees’ “The Hardest Thing,” bemoaning how much despair he was in.
Suffice it to say, I do not like this novel very much. Yet it is a novel that is certainly well-written, and Greene shows himself at his usual level of insight into moral corruption as well as the difficulty of colonial life. Whether or not it was his intention, Greene shows here admirably what makes “nice guys” so widely disliked. Scobie is “nice” but he is not good. He does not know how to lie well and live the corrupt life that so many manage because he is unpracticed and too prone to despair, but he is not strong enough to resist corruption of either a romantic or a financial kind. How this man ever became a high-ranking colonial police officer is a mystery to me, for how can someone be a fit instrument for imperial rule when he has yet to grow a pair and deal with the tough conditions of a fallen world–especially the fallen world of a Graham Greene novel. If this book was based on anyone, I would have been ashamed to have been the person who sued because of the author’s scathing portrayal of the wimp Scobie, or any of the other corrupt people who inhabit these pages.