If you think a title like ‘The Heart of the Matter’ sounds romantic, think again. This novel is closer to ‘Heart of Darkness’ for claustrophobic bleakness. Yes, there’s a love story, but it’s all wonderfully miserable and depressing. A book to read, but not one that will cheer you up.
My favourite definition of comedy is that a comedy starts with confusion or things going badly and ends with resolution and things going well (in other words, marriage). A tragedy, on the other hand, starts with things going OK, like in Macbeth where the play begins with a victory in battle, and then follows the characters on their downward trajectory. Scobie enters the novel as a respected Policeman, one of the very few white characters who enjoys living in an unspecified colonial backwater. In an understated way, he loves his job, his position and his unprepossessing, diseased, surroundings. The impending doom is almost unbearable.
Scobie is a mild mannered every-man. He is aware of his shortcomings and takes a little pride in doing his job well. He knows how much respect he is granted by those around him and is content to live with their, generally fairly low, estimation of him. He has a whiny wife and, bless him, feels guilty about how annoying she is. In true Greene style, he loves her for being unlovable, indulging in a Catholic pity which overwhelms mere physical and emotional ugliness.
This isn’t an easy read. The tragedy is signposted from so early on that none of the odd moments of comedy or romance can distract you from its growing momentum. I don’t want to give the ending away, in fact, I think the last few pages are a bit of a cheat in comparison with what went before. Overall, however, this book ranks with ‘Of Mice and Men’ for the sheer quantity and quality of the foreshadowing. We’re told Scobie can’t be corrupted, that a neighbouring inspector committed suicide after getting overly involved with Syrian ‘traders’, that Scobie only wants to protect the women in his life, that it’s dangerous to walk in the docks at night, that wounds fester within an hour in this region, if not treated with iodine. It’s all going to go so terribly, terribly wrong.
As the novel progresses, the quiet integrity of Scobie’s professionalism, marriage and religion is questioned and destroyed. I realise that this blog doesn’t seem to be selling the book, but seriously, if you’re ever in the mood for fate, guilt and tragedy few books can match it. Scobie is a wonderful creation and is well matched in the minor characters, including his wife ‘Literary Louise’ and the pathetic Wilson, who won’t admit to reading poetry because ‘he wanted passionately to be indistinguishable on the surface from other men.’
At one point Scobie ‘felt the loyalty we feel to unhappiness – the sense that is where we really belong.’ It’s possible that he’d enjoy this book. If you find the above sentence appealing, then read ‘The Heart of the Matter’. It contains all the the unhappiness you might crave, but it’s not hard to understand its fans’ loyalty either.