Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Burnt-out case

Another old, small paperback - and I've found that there are some of this edition of Graham Greene's A Burnt-out Case for sale on Amazon, though as it's only the 1980 edition it hardly counts, surely, as vintage? The novel, about a famous architect hiding from the world in a leper colony in Africa, was written in 1960, though it has that timeless quality of Greeneland, and, like the other books I've been re-reading, that same effortlessly elegant prose. The opening two sentences give a taste of what is to come:
The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: 'I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,' then sat pen in hand with no more to record. The captain in a white soutane stood by the open windows of the saloon reading his breviary.

There you have it. The assumption that the reader will know the original of the parody, the nameless characters about whom we will gradually learn more, the Catholic priest captaining the boat promising that there will be Catholic guilt at some point. Querry, the passenger, doesn't in fact suffer from guilt - he has lost the ability to feel much about anything at all. Famous in his field, victim of a terrible attack of indifference, he arrives at the Congo leper village where the doctor diagnoses him as the mental equivalent of a 'burnt-out case', a leper who has gone through the stage of mutilation and in whom the disease is no longer active.

A strange book. It depressed me when I read it in the 70s, though understanding has grown in the intervening years. The end comes with shocking banality - but is perhaps the only conclusion that would satisfy. I'm glad I read it again - I'd forgotten big chunks of it, and became immersed in the heat and difficulties of Querry's new life and the awfulness of the white community beyond the leproserie. And yes, it was immensely portable.


  1. I reas this years ago too - and while it is heavy, at times depressing, it conveys something of the world weariness that in different ways has afflicted European western culture these last 60 years or so. And there were passages that were movingly written about what it means for a human being to burn out, to be diminished to the point of exhaustion, to look around for a place and a different society, where it might be possible to grow again and either flourish or redeem what has been lost. Thanks for reminding me - and I might just go read it again.

  2. Thanks for the comment - and it'd be fun to think you might read it again. I love G.G. - he writes so very well.