Graham Greene
A BURNT-OUT CASE: Some Personal Reflections
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SBS TV showed the docudrama Lamumba two nights ago, on the evening of 30 July 2010. I had never really got a handle on the events of the historical crisis associated with the legendary African leader Patrice Lamumba, events which took place when I was in my mid-teens. Lumumba is a 2000 film directed by the award-winning Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck(b. 1953). It is centred around Patrice Lumumba in the months before and after the Democratic Republic of the Congo achieved independence from Belgium in June 1960. Raoul Peck's film is a coproduction of France, Belgium, Germany, and Haiti. Lumumba dramatises the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba. In late October 1959, just days after I joined the Baha’i Faith at the age of 15, Lumumba was arrested for allegedly inciting an anti-colonial riot in the city of Stanleyville where thirty people were killed. He was sentenced to six months in prison. His name was just a news item on the distant periphery of my life, immersed as I was in a smalltown culture in the 1950s, in Ontario Canada.

The plot of this docudrama is based on the final months of the life of Patrice Lumumba in his role as the first Prime Minister of the Congo. His tenure in office lasted two months until he was driven from office in September 1960. Joseph Kasavubu was sworn in alongside Lumumba as the first president of the country, and together they attempted to prevent the Congo succumbing to secession and anarchy. The film concluded with the army chief-of-staff, Joseph Mobutu, seizing power in a CIA sponsored coup.-Ron Price with thanks to SBS TV, “Lamumba,” 30 July 2010.

Graham Greene went to Belgian Congo in January 1959, just before the Congo crisis broke out, with a new novel already beginning to form in his head by way of a situation involving a stranger who turned up in a remote leper settlement for no apparent reason. While Greene was writing A Burnt-Out Case in 1959 in the months leading up to and after I became a member of the Baha’i Faith. This novel is one of those in the running for the most depressing narratives ever written. The reader only has to endure for a short time the company of the burnt-out character whose name in the novel was Querry. Greene had to live with him and in him--in his head--for eighteen months.

Greene wrote that: “Success as a novelist is often more dangerous than failure; the ripples often break over a wider coast line. The Heart of the Matter(1948) was a success in the great vulgar sense of that term. There must have been something corrupt there, for the book appealed too often to weak elements in its readers. Never had I received so many letters from strangers, perhaps the majority of them from women and priests. At a stroke I found myself regarded as a Catholic author in England, Europe and America -- the last title to which I had ever aspired. This account may seem cynical and unfeeling, but in the years between The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair(1951) I felt myself used and exhausted by the victims of religion. The vision of faith as untroubled sea was lost for ever; faith was more like a tempest in which the lucky were engulfed and lost, and the unfortunate survived to be flung battered and bleeding on the shore. A better man could have found a life's work on the margin of that cruel sea, but my own course of life gave me no confidence in any aid I might proffer. I had no apostolic mission, and the cries for spiritual assistance maddened me because of my impotence. What was the Church for but to aid these sufferers? What was the priesthood for? I was like a man without medical knowledge in a village struck with plague. It was in those years, I think, that Querry was born, and Father Thomas too. He had often sat in that chair of mine, and he had worn many faces.”

I was never much of a reader of novels,
but in the 1990s I became a teacher of
English lit to matriculants and A Burnt-
Out Case, a book Greene wrote when I
was just getting into life, and a life which
would also make me one of those burnt-out
cases. Greene’s book was on a curriculum
as I was getting near the end of a teaching
career and only beginning to discover his
perpetually grey and disturbing Greenland.1

1 Matthew Price, Sinner Take All: Graham Greene’s Damned Redemption, Book Forum, Oct/Nov 2004.
Ron Price
1 August 2010