Heart and soul

The Heart of the Matter

Two men, united by their author and his common purpose. On the one hand we have the affable priest, newly promoted and taking a sabbatical in Fascist Spain with his Communist friend, ex-mayor of tiny El Toboso. On the other we have deputy commissioner of police Henry Scobie, slandered and spied upon in his West African backwater. With charming naivety the eponymous Quixote (yes: relation) bungles and falters his way through Greene's gentle attempts to understand the man; inevitability is Scobie's only companion, as his character is plunged, lonely and alone among unwitting would-be friends, through the sharp knives of the other book. Both characters reveal their universality under Greene's loving but unpitying gaze.

That both of these novels are immensely strong in their own rights---almost to the point of flawlessness---need not concern us here. I can't talk about Greene objectively enough to do justice to an in-depth critique of each. Instead a comparison of the two is edifying. For the casual reader it should be remarked that Monsignor Quixote is loveable with a serious centre for chewing on, erudite conversation blending with foolhardy exploits based around analogy with the priest's great (fictional, or not?) ancestor, whereas The Heart of the Matter does not compromise in its dragging of Scobie from one flawed decision to the next. Comedy versus tragedy, in extremis.

Greene has in some sense written the same novel twice, struggling not to write the perfect novel but to obtain a perfect grasp on these human beings. Both represent enormous structures and deal with the burden of these responsibilities (the Church: moral, ineptly embodied but with a core of iron; the State: legal, well represented but with a core of rot). Both travel insofar as Scobie barrels through situations as quickly as Quixote's car rattles downhill, and these journeys, metaphorically or literally, provide threads onto which thrilling experiences and counterpoints are pegged. Both have well-disguised ciphers as companions, elucidating their internal states and contrasting---along an axis independent from the Quixote--Scobie projection---with the protagonists.

Graham Greene doesn't merely dissect the human condition: he strips it, mechanically and unstoppably. Every emotion is snipped from these men: peeled off, studied, indicated and catalogued. And yet for all his scathing enquiry and well-meaning detachedness Greene is still able to love his characters in the fullest way: to itemize their faults like a laundry list while enveloping each and every one in an understanding that heals both Scobie and Quixote, sending them on their way with their souls bruised but intact.