Thursday, August 6, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Journey Without Maps by Graham Greene

I think it’s fair to say most everyone middle-aged and older in the English speaking world has heard the name Graham Greene.  Writing in nearly all forms and many of his books adapted for the silver screen, he is one of the main literary figures of the 20 th century.  The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Honorary Consul, and The End of the Affair are major novels that deftly mix sharp prose, subtle drama, and interests that delicately combine personal and political concern. 

Set in a variety of locations far adrift from his native Albion, many of his novels travel the world.  And the settings are not without personal knowledge; Greene himself visited many of the places he would later set his novels in.  One of his first published works is the record of a one-month trip in Liberia in 1935.  Greene calls Journey Without Maps (1936) his quest to find Joseph Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’, but there is speculation that the trip may have also served to kill a few other birds, government work and supplementing fiction sales among them.

Regardless of reason, Journey Without Maps is not the account of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed man in the prime of his life out to explore the wilds of the Earth.  The prose oscillating between erratic and fluid, brooding and contemptuous, concerned and observant, it seems to mirror Greene’s attitude toward the trip.   As if driven by personal demons, he consumes vast quantities of whiskey (something which a significant portion of his carriers seems to have been bound up in lugging day to day), is touchy toward the other whites he encounters, and seems to wallow in the depravity of civilization—The Power and the Glory coming across as more autobiographical than fictional in comparison.

    Like a revelation, when I was fourteen, I realized the pleasure of cruelty; I wasn’t interested any longer in walks on commons, in playing cricket on the beach.  There was a girl lodging close by I wanted to do things to; I loitered outside the door hoping to see her.  I didn’t do anything about it, I wasn’t old enough, but I was happy; I could think about pain as something desirable and not as something dreaded.  It was as if I had discovered that the way to enjoy life was to appreciate pain.”

Running or escaping as much as he is trying to find something, Journey Without Maps is by turns cathartic and informative.  There is as much about Greene himself in the travelogue as Africa.  Readers looking for a portrait of Liberia in 1935 will thus achieve some degree of satisfaction from Greene’s narrative, but by the same token, may grow frustrated with the regular inanition. 

In fact reading more like one of his novels, Journey Without Maps is not what one immediately thinks of when they think of travelogues or travel writing.  Greene maintaining some distance throughout, tossing in bits and pieces of autobiography as the situation suits, the narrative is more dense and variable than the average Greene novel, and as a whole reads somewhere between fiction and non-fiction.  The effect seemingly intentional, Greene even went so far as to elide a few key elements of reality from his journey.  His cousin Barabara his companion throughout the trip, nowhere does she receive mention. (Her version of the trip was published in Too Late to Turn Back.)

No comments:

Post a Comment