Book Review: Journey Without Maps

Journey Without Maps, by Graham Greene

As it happens, before I read this book I had already read (and greatly enjoyed) a book that had been inspired by this one that led a man to travel through Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia in dangerous times [1].  I am greatly fond of travel books, and this book is certainly an interesting one, and one that reveals a great deal about the mixed character of Graham Greene as a writer and as a person.  As one might easily imagine, it is easy to have mixed feelings about this book.  Greene was an observant but also a highly cynical observer, and so this book shares a certain amount of trenchant observations about Liberian life and some commentary that may strike contemporary readers as rather awkward and cringy.  Greene was, without a doubt, a man of his own time and while this book is a great travel book, not all of its ideas have necessarily aged well.  There are some truths it was possible to tell in his time that cannot be told in our own time without paying an awful price in terms of one’s acceptability, and Greene may not have wanted to pay that price.

This sizable book of about 300 pages or so is divided into three parts, each of which is divided into several chapters.  It should be remembered that this is a nonfiction work, and moreover a work that is written with a fair bit of subterfuge, as the author was not strictly permitted to travel where he did and had to bluff his way around some of the problems that resulted from this, which were minimized by his dealing graciously with others and his dealing with illiterate civil servants, for the most part in remote parts of countries largely neglected by their ruling elites.  The author begins his exploration by talking about his way to Africa (I, 1), the cargo ship he traveled in (I, 2), and his brief trip through Sierra Leone (I, 3).  After that the author talks about his time in Western Liberia (II, 1), his meetings with people along the way (II, 2), including a trip into Buzie country (II, 3), and a slightly illegal trip into Guinea (II, 4).  After this the author closes with his madcap efforts to get back to the coast and home, with some time spent at a mission statement (III, 1), his skeptical look at civilized LIberians (III, 2), his time in Grand Bassa (III, 3), his exultation upon reaching the port (III, 4), and the postscript in Monrovia dealing with the election that was held at the time (III, 5).

In Journey Without Maps, Greene tells the story of his own trip, on the cheap, through a part of the world that is still mysterious and dangerous.  The author’s cynicism about the benefits of development and the inability of African realms, whether native or colonial, to provide for the well-being of ordinary people is something that has been born out in contemporary times, and the author’s clear-eyed view of the corruption of the realms and in the ways that dark and evil superstition and layers of corruption have been endemic is certainly something that is relevant for contemporary readers, even if the author’s noble savage myths are certainly not on point and his paternalistic view may strike many contemporary readers as irksome at best.  There are few good ways to write about forgotten and neglected corners of Africa, as to write the truth is bound to offend someone with cultural or political power somewhere, and given that no one wants to accept blame for how things came to be as bad as they are.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: Journey Without Maps

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