Monday, November 26, 2018

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS” by Graham Greene (first published 1936)

            At one time or another I have read most (but not all) of the novels of Graham Greene (1904-1991) and, given that most of his works were filmed, I have seen many of the films associated with him. (See my post on The End of the Affair and The Quiet American). But quite a bit of Greene’s ouevre has sat unread on my shelves for years and every so often I will take down and read a work by Greene that I haven’t previously cracked. Most recently it was not a novel, but his first travel book Journey Without Maps.

In early 1935 young Greene, than aged 31, chose to make his first trip outside Europe. He had already visited places like France and Berlin and Lithuania but, though he was later to become a compulsive globetrotter, the rest of the world was unknown to him. So he chose to visit the small West African republic of Liberia.

Why Liberia?

Apart from Abyssinia (Ethiopia), which was just about to be overrun by Mussolini, Liberia was then the only state in Africa that was not colonised and ruled by whites. This intrigued Greene. But I’m fairly sure there was another motive. As I noted in my posting about Greene’s first published novel The Man Within (1929), the shadow of Joseph Conrad still hung over him and influenced his way of looking at the world. Africa to him was the Africa of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, cruelly conquered, administered and exploited by Europeans, but primitive and daunting, perhaps a place of nightmares and perhaps an archetype of the murky human soul. Three times in Journey Without Maps, Greene uses the phrase “heart of darkness”, once he directly cites that novella by name, and he also refers to a character from Conrad’s little-read Arrow of Gold. The title Journey Without Maps can be taken literally – in 1935 much of Liberia was unmapped and unexplored by Europeans. But Greene also gives a metaphorical explanation of his chosen title and of the meaning of his journey: “The method of psycho-analysis is to bring the patient back to the idea which he is repressing: a long journey backwards without maps, catching a clue here and a clue there, as I caught the names of villages from this man and that, until one has to face the general idea, the pain or the memory.” (Part 2, Chap. 1) Travelling through Liberia is travelling through the dark places of his own psyche.

It’s easy enough to convey the literal course of his journey.  Greene sailed from Liverpool, via Madeira and the Canaries, to the British West African colony of Sierra Leone. He comments a little dyspeptically on boozy and hearty English passengers on the ship before he reached Freetown. He crossed the border from Sierra Leone into the north-west part of Liberia, having, naturally, to bribe corrupt border guards.  This was the beginning of a three hundred mile trek through country in which many of the local Africans had either never seen a white man before or at least had not seen one for decades. It was far from comforts and conveniences because “in the climate of West Africa books rot, pianos go out of tune, and even a gramophone record buckles”  (Part 1, Chap.3)  First he journeyed from village to village through Liberia’s northern provinces, where the sun beats down through sparse bush. At one stage he crossed through a chunk of neighbouring French Guinea (now called just Guinea). Then he turned south towards the coast, now going through dense and quite trackless rainforest, where it often poured down.  He notes the differences between tribal groups but especially notes how different Liberian indigenes are from the Muslim, fez-wearing Mandingo traders across the border in Guinea

And what does he encounter and describe on this journey? Dark and tiny villages in thick bush;  guinea worms in streams, choking dust on the track, cockroaches, jiggers digging under toenails and laying eggs, ants everywhere, rats swarming down the walls of huts at night, snakes, and fear of elephants in the rainforest. He suffers fever in the last leg of his trek and declares, with a typical echo of youthful melancholia: “The fever would not let me sleep at all, but by the early morning it was sweated out of me. My temperature was a long way below normal, but the worst boredom of the trek for the time being was over. I had made a discovery through the night which interested me. I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable.” (Part 3, Chap.4)

He finally makes it to the coastal area of Grand Bassa and then takes a boat to Liberia’s shabby little capital Monrovia, where he spends nine days. He makes small and telling comments on the general politics and culture of Liberia in the course of his bushwhacking. But it is only in the last chapter, titled “Postscript in Monrovia”, that he takes general stock of the country’s status.

As he sees it, despite being governed by black Africans, Liberia is as much a Western colony as any other African country at that time. It was, after all, an artificial creation, founded in 1847 as a settlement for former slaves from the United States of America. Greene waspishly suggests that part of the motive for the nation’s foundation was that American slaveowners were getting rid of their “bastards” – that is, the offspring they had fathered on slave women. He also notes that the freed slaves who settled Liberia were descendants of people who had been dragged from West Africa over two centuries previously, and they were therefore not people who thought as Africans, but as Americans. They were Westernised. In effect, though they were black, the ruling elite of Liberia, living mainly in the coastal areas, looked down on the peoples and tribes in the interior of the country in exactly the same way that white colonisers would have done. The people in the interior regarded them as alien, and as worse than the French or British imperialists in nearby countries. Greene remarks at one point  “Everywhere in the north I found myself welcomed because I was a white, because they hoped all the time that a white nation would take them over.” (Part 2, Chap.2) To make matters worse, at the time Greene was travelling there, the American Firestone corporation had gained an exclusive concession in Liberia to exploit its rubber. Therefore vast tracts of land were given over to latex extraction, with the result that relatively little agriculture could be undertaken in the interior.

Journey Without Maps is a vivid and robust travel book, but of course there are things that mark it out as a book written over 80 years ago. Not on every page, but frequently enough, young Greene unselfconsciously uses racial epithets that would now be frowned upon. An African woman flirting with a drunk European is a “stout black bitch”; African children are called “piccaninnies”; the porters Greene hires are “boys”. He has a total of 25 African porters carrying his baggage through the jungle, one in particular, called Amedoo, becoming his personal servant. At one point Greene bargains his porters out of getting higher wages and he sometimes has to sort out quarrels between porters of different tribes, like a colonial administrator. In his long journey, it is Greene’s habit to walk ahead of his large team of porters, but sometimes, when he is feverish, he is carried by the porters in a hammock. Add to this the solar topee that he wears and the huge load of luggage his “boys” have to carry - including his indispensible supply of whisky and quinine – and inevitably, to modern eyes, this evokes the stereotypical image the “Great White Hunter” who lounges and adventures while the Africans work.

Yet this is far from being the main effect of Journey Without Maps for, like Conrad, Greene sees a moral equivalence between African and European and whenever he mentions something primitive, bizarre or disgusting in Africa, he is quick to point out that it is no stranger or unnatural than European norms. Masked “devils” (shamans) conduct “bush schools” in which young initiates are scarred with knives in a primitive form of tattooing, and the “devil” strikes terror in the village even if the villagers are fully aware that behind the mask there is a village elder. Greene encounters an Alligator Society, a Terrapin Society, and a Snake Society for those who worship these animals as fetishes. There are people who claim to be able to make lightning with malign intent and there are rumours of cannibalism and human sacrifce deeper in the rainforest. But Greene reminds us that the masked shaman is very like the traditional British Jack-in-the-Green from an earlier pagan age; and at one point he likens the protean and apparently changing nature of this “devil” to a character in Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss. He also uses the technique of inserting into his text flashbacks to England where he recalls the “seedy” (one of his favourite words) side of English life -  the army officer with a penchant for brothels; the genteel old woman revering the crazed “prophetess” Joanna Southcott; the verminous English gypsy buried in rock-hard coldness of winter; the old pervert eyeing up young children in a Kensington Park, as grotesque and strange as anything seen in Liberia.

His comments on Christian missionaries in Liberia are a little more positive, but they also have their ironic edge as he encounters a convent of Episcopalian nuns, a whiny American Lutheran woman, a German Seventh Day Adventist missionary, a very practical Methodist medical missionary, and a black Catholic convert who brings a boy to recite the Catechism to Greene. [In this book Greene gives a rather dispirited account of his own conversion and baptism, saying he accepted Catholic teaching intellectually. but not emotionally.]

In many respects, then, Greene’s view of African society is very akin to that of Chinua Achebe’s Nigerian novel ThingsFall Apart. Greene is sceptical of any benefits (black) American colonisation may have brought to this country. For all its strangeness and even horrors, indigenous ways are seen as being coherent and cohesive in their own terms. But they are not idealised and there is no hint of the “noble savage”. Original sin is universal.

Despite its unfortunate racial epithets noted above, Journey Without Maps is an enlightened book for its age.

There are, however, two things for which I would criticise it.

First, I believe Greene sometimes shows false modesty. Early in the book, he claims to be embarrassed when he finds a film made of his thriller Stamboul Train (the American film was titled Orient Express) playing in a dingy local cinema in Tenerife in the Canaries. He says his novel was written only for money and the film was rubbish.  I wonder, was he really embarrassed? Remember, Greene was only 28 when he wrote Stamboul Train and this was the first time one of his novels was made into a movie. At that age, I’m sure he would have been very happy with the royalties he got.

Second, and with the deepest of regret, I have to note a habit of Greene’s that was later in his life to become an abiding failing. In his journey, Greene meets the African-American mercenary Colonel Elwood Davis, who had been under investigation by a commission of the League of Nations for atrocities he carried out against the Kru people. Greene talks with Davis and is basically charmed by him, depicting him more-or-less as an interesting buccaneer and gifted raconteur. (Later, he has a similarly over-positive assessment of his meeting with Liberia’s President Barclay). I believe this was the first time Greene was taken in by a lethal criminal or rascal. Later in his life, Greene served in the British secret service (three years stationed in Sierra Leone in the Second World War) and became friends with Kim Philby. He would never shift from his favourable assessment of Philby, even when the man proved to be a Soviet “sleeper”. Indeed he wrote an admiring preface to Philby’s KGB-blessed autobiography My Secret War after Philby defected to the USSR. Similarly, late in his life, Greene wrote a painfully hagiographic book Getting to Know the General (1981) about Panama’s strongman General Omar Torrijos Herrera. It would seem that the writer who was so disenchanted with “seedy” middle-class British (and American) democracy could persuade himself that nearly any alternative was good. The atrocity-committing Colonel Davis was the first major criminal to be depicted favourably by Greene.

By the way, from our perspective eighty years later, there is a grim footnote to all this. Between 1989 and 2003, under the notorious Charles Taylor, civil war ripped Liberia apart. Between 500,000 and one million Liberians were slaughtered. Charles Taylor is still serving out the 50-year prison sentence he was handed by the International Court of Justice for all the atrocities he approved. Compared with Taylor’s, Davis’ atrocities are small beer. Gosh, how we have progressed!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  *   *   *   *   *   *    *   *   *   *   *

So far, I have given you an honest reaction to Greene’s book as I read it.  There is, however, one very important footnote that has to be added, and it concerns the way a writer can, by omission, distort the very nature of the things he is reporting. In Journey Without Maps, Greene very occasionally notes that throughout his whole Liberian trip he was accompanied by “my cousin”. He mentions “my cousin” fleetingly only four or five times in the whole book, once noting that “my cousin” is a woman and having only one brief passage in which he gives her some part in the story –  he reports their shared misery when he had fever (Part 3, Chap.4).  If you weren’t reading closely, you could easily miss that she was even there. She is never given a name.

After reading Journey Without Maps, I waded through the two chapters (57 pages) that Norman Sherry devotes to Greene’s Liberian trip in his biography of Greene (Norman Sherry, The Life of Graham Greene Volume 1 – 1904-1939, first published in 1989, when Greene was still alive). The unnamed cousin was Barbara Greene. She was even younger than Greene when they undertook this journey. She was 23, and basically came with her cousin on a whim and because she was bored with London. Norman Sherry – who retraced Greene’s Liberian journey in 1980, and found the country now ridden with violence – makes it clear that Greene made some elementary mistakes in his journey. He thought his trek through the interior of Liberia would take two weeks. It took four weeks. This was in part because he did not take advice from both a more experienced traveller and his African porters, and he insisted they take what turned out to be the wrong track.

More important, in his account Greene omitted the fact that it was his young cousin Barbara who nursed him when he had fever and was apparently near death. Both Barbara and Graham kept diaries throughout their journey. Norman Sherry quotes from both diaries, which are sometimes more frank than Journey Without Maps is. In her diary, Barbara Greene noted that one of the village chiefs they met ogled her extensively and seems to have asked Graham how much she would cost.

Barbara Greene wrote her own account of the journey called Land Benighted, later re-published under a different title as Too Late To Turn Back. I have not caught up with this book, but apparently it gives a very different perspective on some of the events that appear in Journey Without Maps.

Why did Graham Greene basically cut his cousin out of his story – especially as she was the only person who shared with him the whole expedition from England to Liberia and back again? There seems to have been no animosity between them (Sherry quotes from friendly letters they were still exchanging years later). My guess is that to mention her in any detail would have destroyed the illusion Graham Greene wanted to create of being the solitary European traveller cleansing his soul in the trackless African wilderness.

Lesser footnote: For the record, two of Greene’s later novels are set in Africa, but neither is set in Liberia. The Heart of the Matter is set in Sierra Leone (where Greene worked for three years in the 1940s) and A Burnt-Out Case is set in what was then the Belgian Congo. The only fictitious use Greene made of Liberia was in one of his short stories, “A Chance for Mr. Lever”.


  1. I've never come across this title by Greene, so thanks for the long post on it. I've just ordered a copy on Kindle. I read a lot of Greene when I was young, but haven't often read him in recent years, though I have a few of his books still on my shelves. I'm looking forward to this book - it'll make a nice change from the seemingly endless thrillers I've had to review over the last year!

  2. Nice to hear from you Mike. AS i said, I've read most, but not all, of his works over the years and I'm now at the stage of catching up with the ones I missed.

  3. Mr Greene got interrupted for a few months and I've only just got back to him. This is quite an odd book in many ways, not least the way he writes so little of 'the cousin'. It has that kind of class attitude of the times, which is probably only to be expected, but there are a lot of things that you wonder about. On the plus side the minor characters - as I think he calls them somewhere - stand out as vivid personalities, and the sense of the strange is continually striking.

  4. I discovered that our local library has a copy of Too Late to Turn Back, so I've begun reading it. Barbara comes across altogether different to Graeme, and her views of what they encountered are completely different. Fascinating stuff.