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A Burnt-Out Case By Graham Greene

Jacket: Paperback
Pages: 208
Publisher: Penguin USA (Paper); Reprint edition (April 1992)
Genre: Literary
ISBN: 0140185399

Comments about the author: Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a prolific novelist, short story writer, travel writer and children's book writer. Many of his novels and short stories have been successfully adapted to the movie screen, including The Third Man (directed by Orson Welles), The End of The Affair, and The Quiet American

Review: Few writers can match Graham Greene's dry British wit; fewer yet can rival the keen philosophical bent underlying his sense of humor. It is this interplay of wit and wisdom that is the hallmark of Greene's work.

But Graham Greene is also known for something else. The religious themes he explored in his novels led to him being labelled a "Catholic writer", even though Greene himself rejected the label. Writing about Catholic themes does not make one a "Catholic writer", whatever that means, much less a good Catholic.

In an instance of art imitating life, the protagonist of "A Burnt-out Case" shares a similar frustration. After a lifetime spent designing cathedrals, world-renowned architect Querry has earned a reputation for being a good Catholic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Querry had long renounced his Catholic faith, and has lost interest in his vocation as well.

Tired with life, Querry retreats to a leproserie in Africa. He fears he has lost the ability to feel love and pain; in this sense he is no different from a leper who has lost all their limbs and the extremities to leprosy – a burnt-out case. Querry writes, "I haven't enough feeling left for human beings to do anything for them out of pity."

Querry helps the priests in the leproserie, doing the little that he can, while trying to keep a low profile.

But even in the heart of Africa, Querry finds that he cannot escape from his fame, nor from the enthusiasm of his fans. It is the misguided actions of others around him that lead to his final downfall.

One wouldn't expect a plot like this to offer Graham Greene much room to display his wit. But he does, with his imaginative depiction of the continent of Africa: the heat, its unexplored vastness, its empty forests. "There was little in the forest to appeal to the romantic. It was completely empty. It had never been humanized, like the woods of Europe, with witches and charcoal-burners and cottages of marzipan; no one had ever walked under these trees lamenting lost love, nor had anyone listened to the silence and communed like a lake-poet with his heart. For there was no silence; if a man here wished to be heard at night he had to raise his voice to counter the continuous chatter of the insects as in some monstrous factory where thousands of sewing-machines were being driven against time by myriads of needy seamstresses. Only for an hour or so, in the midday heat, silence fell, the siesta of the insect."

Greene also draws out all the humor he can from the depressing reality of the leproserie and of life. Nothing is too sacred for Greene not to attack. "Sometimes I think God was not entirely serious when he gave man the sexual instinct. … Nor when he invented moral theology."

Jokes aside, Greene saw this novel as "an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief, and non-belief". In "A Burnt-out Case", the people who attest to believe in God behave as badly as those who do not believe. In the end, which character stands out for his belief in God?

“A Burnt-out Case” may not have the intensity of The End of The Affair, nor the panorama of The Quiet American, but it is notable all the same as a meditation on love and God, a pairing of themes that Greene excelled at.

— Reviewed by: Wenkai Tay


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