Graham Greene is famous for a couple of things as well as being a world renowned author and both of those other interests – travelling to remote places (Greeneland) and the Catholic Church – are involved in A Burnt-Out Case.
Following on from a Heart of Darkness, which is mentioned in this book and an obvious influence on the first chapter, this is a story about the strange things that happen to Europeans when placed in a remote and different environment.
The book starts a little bit like a mystery trying to work out who the mystery passenger is and then it widens to become a question of what Querry’s motivation is and just how far will he go to escape his past. Against the backdrop of a leprosy mission he wrestles with his indifference while Dr Colin wrestles with his fight to wipe out leprosy and the Catholic church figures try to wrestle with the indifference of the natives and the problems of the heat. As a reporter turns up and runs a story painting Querry out to be a saint there is a pivotal exchange between one of the priests and Dr Colin describing the state of Querry:
'Perhaps Querry is also a patient,' Colin said.
'That's nonsense. I was thinking of the lepers - you have always dreamt of a school for rehabilitation, haven't you, if you could get the funds. For those poor burnt-out cases of yours.'
'Querry may also be a burnt-out case,' the doctor said.
It ends with Querry having cured himself of not caring but at the cost of involvement with the local white community and one of these, Rycker eventually kills him in a misunderstanding over his wife as Querry’s past reputation catches up with him.
Is it well written?
It keeps you guessing about what will happen to Querry but some of the other characters seem to go almost nowhere - for instance you yearn to know more about Dr Colin but never really get past his battle with leprosy and his atheism. There is also too much Catholic politics for my liking getting in the way of the story. Obviously there is a deeper debate here about religion and the hold the Catholic faith has on people but if you are not interested in that debate it makes a great deal of the book unappealing
Is it worth reading?
Not as a first stop on the Greene trail. His more well known works like Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair are probably going to get read first. This is not always easy reading and because of its openly Catholic themes I would wait until you have engaged more deeply with Greene’s other more well known works before reading A Burnt-Out Case
More Greene, particulary Brighton Rock, or onto Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness if you haven’t read that to get a chiming version of an African Congo river cruise experience
Version read – penguin paperback