The Heart Of The Matter is Graham Greene’s 1948 novel about a senior colonial police officer working in a west African country during World War Two. Henry Scobie prides himself on his honesty. However, his unhappy wife, Louise, wants to escape from their stultifying colonial community and take a solo break in South Africa. To pay for Louise’s passage, Scobie compromises himself by accepting a loan from a dodgy business man, when the bank refuses him credit. While his wife is away, Henry falls in love with another woman. This results in much self loathing and inner turmoil, made worse by his Catholic faith which condemns adultery as a mortal sin.
In some ways The Heart Of The Matter reminded me of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a book about a nineteenth century Nigerian chief living his life according to local social expectations, running into the values of European colonial missionaries. Scobie is constantly beating himself up about adultery, when the people he lives amongst don’t seem to know what adultery is. When a local person refers to their sister or brother, Scobie asks the standard question, “same father or mother?” He has got so used to the prevalence of half brothers and sisters, that he doesn’t give a second thought to the possibility of eternal damnation for their adulterous parents. And in his own culture, adultery is actually much more accepted than might be expected for a mortal sin. Scobie encourages his wife’s relationship with a sympathetic man friend because it lightens his emotional load. One part of his mind sees adultery as beyond forgiveness: another part doesn’t really mind if Louise has an affair as long as she’s happy and stops stressing late at night when he’s trying to sleep. And when Louise disappears off to South Africa, she hears about Scobie’s affair from a friend and decides she’d better stop being an absent wife and go back to sort things out. Louise is a devout Catholic, but the theory of adultery as a terrible crime fails to match her level-headed approach to the reality of her relationship problems.
The whole book revolves around this conundrum of the relative nature of vice and virtue, and Henry’s increasingly desperate attempts to balance one against the other, when it isn’t always clear which is which.
There is some interesting use of point of view in The Heart Of The Matter. The book actually opens not from Scobie’s perspective, but from that of a socially awkward undercover officer called Wilson, who has been sent out to check on the work of the police. In a traditional detective story, Wilson would have been the central character uncovering Scobie’s wrong doing. A rather peripheral character would have been the heart of the matter. But in this story there is no such centre. There is no authority to which all questions can be referred. Instead there is a pervading confusion, which in an arbitrary way, can condemn, or confer forgiveness on anyone.
This is an intense read, about an intense, kind hearted, highly self-involved person. But there are a few lighter moments. I enjoyed Scobie’s struggles to entertain a young boy in hospital, when the only books available in the library are heavy, worthy religious tomes – there is nothing so low-brow as a novel on the shelves. He does an admirable job of improvisation, turning a missionary’s dull autobiography into an adventure story about pirates.
The Heart Of The Matter does a similar job, turning a heavy tome about spiritual and moral crisis into a novel that might help its readers step back and see things in a lighter and more forgiving way. For the missionary types in this African town, novels are a vice. The Heart Of The Matter turns them into a virtue.