Here’s another of those third-world Graham Greene mini-masterpieces I always thought I read but really never did. The Power and The Glory, which I looked at a few weeks ago, is set in an unnamed Latin American location. A Burnt-Out Case brings us to the Congo.
The phrase of the title refers to what doctors at the leproserie where the main action is located call the instance of a cured leper. The disease has run its course, burnt itself out. However, as with most of Greene’s work, there is an ambiguity afoot.
William Querry is a celebrated architect and philanderer who has decided to chuck it all and withdraw from the world. He ends up the leproserie because it is as far up the Congo, or this small branch of it, as the boat will go. He’s rich, famous, and cares about nothing and no one. An empty man. “A burnt out case,” or at least my first impression of the term.
Here, among some fathers and nuns of an unnamed order, he takes up residence with the idea that the world won’t find him, that nothing will be required of him, and he’ll be free to indulge his emptiness. As with most of Greene’s writing, of course, Catholicism becomes the driving mechanism of the world of A Burnt Out Case. Even Querry’s atheism (he is a lapsed Catholic, naturally) and that of the Leperosie’s Doctor Colin, must play out against the background of the resident fathers and the laughable (and dangerous) philosophical/religious semi-ravings of a nearby palm oil factory owner named Ryker.
Querry proves himself a poor isolate from the start. He keeps mum when questioned about his background and reasons for coming, but he tries to make himself useful. His first major task is to drive a truck to the provincial capital some days distant to pick up an electrical apparatus that will detect leprosy more easily than the Doctor’s manual palpations. Accompanying him is an assistant, a cured but mutilated leper useless to the outside world, named Deo Gratias. In some ways, you have the heart of the book’s themes summed up in those two names. Querry fails to find the apparatus and is set upon by Ryker, who hungers for pseudo-profound discussions which no one in the area, most particularly his young wife, Maria, is capable of providing.
Thus begins the classic Greeneian struggle for penance and salvation. Classic Greeneian does not mean classic theological. No Augustinian debauchery, subsequent epiphanies, and reaching toward heavenly light. Just a kind of daily grind of conversation, small events, inexorable but almost undetectable progress toward some ineffable goal. Progress and goal which are not at all evident as the action proceeds.
Querry “designs” a hospital. Querry rescues Deo Gratias from a perilous situation. Unwarranted motives of goodness are applied to his actions. A journalist appears, writes mendacious stories of Querry as saint, Querry renouncing his womanizing and seeking expiation through good works. Querry can’t stop the avalanche of unwanted, undeserved accolades. He becomes an invented creature whose reputation bears little relation to his real self. Or does it? Has he indeed become a minister of good works despite his best efforts? Has, as so often happens with Greene (and God?), the Lord has chosen the weakest among us to perform miracles in His name? And has Querry thus become a “burnt-out case” in another sense—a man whose disease has run its course, left him spiritually fit?
Good questions. A Burnt Out Case poses these and a good many more. Haunting questions, fundamental to our very being. And that’s the idea. Not a bad job of work for a book just short of 200 pages.