A Burnt-Out Case, by Graham Greene:
“Can you cure me?”
“Perhaps your mutilations haven’t gone far enough yet. When a man comes here too late the disease has to burn itself out.”
The idea, even the terminology, must have been irresistible to Graham Greene. When leprosy has run its course, the “burnt-out case” has no fingers and toes, no human feelings or desires, no wish to leave the leprosery. He is no longer a leper, but this merely means that he has lost his last title to individuality. Now, he is nothing.
Except for The Quiet American and the Entertainments, the whole of Mr. Greene’s work can be seen as a progression to this point, with the central characters —to write “heroes” would be sadly out of place—more and more nearly burnt-out in each succeeding novel. The onset of mutilation, the first inroads of atrophy can be diagnosed in early books like England Made Me. With Scobie, in The Heart of the Matter, feeling has the desperate acuteness of impending loss. The End of the Affair is a cameo of the final mutilation. Querry, the famous architect fleeing his fame in this latest book, is as near to being utterly burnt out as the leading figure in a novel can be.
The concept has validity and the book, consequently, importance. I should not be surprised if it became an ingredient of common speech, at least in certain circles—“Yes, poor old chap, he’s rather a burnt-out case, you know.” Seriously now, most of us can think of people who are burnt-out in respect of either their work, or sexual love, or emotional capacity, or political involvement, or belief. The rarity of Querry is that he is burnt out all round.
So much for the theme: now for the novel. The first chapter, with the mysterious passenger chugging up a tributary of the Congo to the boat’s terminus, comes easily to Graham Greene—though we ought not to neglect the cunningly created sense of timelessness, the marvellous evocation of landscape and of physical sensation. Querry, we learn later, walked out of his life in the suddenest and simplest way; armed with a credit card and using a false name, he boarded a plane as it was about to leave. At the leprosery, he asks only to stay—and to make himself useful, but purely as a justification for staying. He makes plans