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Vol. 29 No. 15 · 2 August 2007

Graham Greene at the Leproserie

Michel Lechat

It would be nice to say that Graham Greene just appeared one day in Yonda, the leprosy settlement in the Equateur Province of the then Belgian Congo where I was the doctor, stepping off the gangway of the bishop’s riverboat as Querry does in A Burnt-Out Case. But Greene did not come unannounced. His visit to Yonda had been arranged through a common friend in Brussels. In his letter to this friend, he had expressed the wish ‘for the purposes of a book to spend some weeks in a hospital of the Schweitzer kind in Africa, but run by a religious order’. My first reaction was mixed: Dr Schweitzer was not highly regarded at the time by health professionals, and our settlement was very different from the leproseries that Greene seemed to be looking for. Yonda was a large village near the River Congo, with small brick houses set along avenues bordered by mango trees; it housed more than a thousand leprosy patients. There was no segregation of the ‘lepers’, a cruel and unnecessary measure meant to prevent the transmission of the disease. Leprosy is not particularly contagious, and out of some 100,000 patients at the time in the Congo, no more than 10 per cent would have been infectious. Patients could go freely in and out of the compound; their families lived with them if they chose to. There were schools, and children were examined at regular intervals for the onset of symptoms, which at an early stage are easy to cure. There were workshops, plots of land for cultivation and a dozen dugouts (which we called ‘pirogues’) on the riverbanks. Some patients used to be fishermen, and on the gravel road leading to town one was always coming across patients or their relatives pedalling to the market, carrying fish or piles of vegetables for sale on the backs of their bicycles. Yonda was aiming to become the prototype of a modern institution for the care of leprosy. It didn’t seem what Greene had in mind for his prospective book, and so I did nothing to encourage him to come, though I did spend a Sunday preparing a large chart describing a dozen leproseries in Africa that seemed to me better suited than Yonda to accommodate him.

To tell the truth, I was not keen to have such a visitor. In spite of Yonda’s relative remoteness, it was on its way to becoming if not a tourist attraction, at least a showpiece. I was also apprehensive that our guest, a famous Catholic writer, might upset the delicate balance between myself and the mission. It is not always easy to be a mission doctor, especially when one is also a government employee. How would the father superior react, cycling non-stop along the avenues chewing at his cheroot? Or the father in charge of construction, who in a previous life had taught Greek in a provincial Belgian town? Or the brother in charge of carpentry, who did not speak a word of anything except Frisian, at times mixed with some presumably horrendous expletives in Malay, which he had brought back from years spent in a Japanese concentration camp during World War Two? Not to mention the bishop, described in the Congo Journal as ‘a wonderfully handsome old man with an 18th-century manner – or perhaps the manner of an Edwardian “boulevardier”’? What if this ‘pilgrim of the dry season’ – the sarcastic term used by the colonials to designate passing travellers – did not go to Mass? Could he play bridge?

In any event, after a couple of weeks a letter arrived saying that Greene wanted to come to Yonda. And then a second letter arrived: ‘The book that I have in mind has a leper mission purely as a background and I have no intention, I promise you, of producing a roman à clef . . . Nor am I looking for any dramatic material. The more normal and routine-like that I can make the background the more effective it would be for my purpose.’ There was a third letter in December: ‘I want to see things as they are . . . I want also to reassure you about the subject of the novel. The real subject is a theological and psychological argument which . . . I can’t go into for fear of destroying this still nebulous idea that it should take place against the background of an African hospital settlement.’

I went to see the father superior in order to make the arrangements for the visit. He did not show reluctance or surprise. He was quite used to the visitors I brought in, as well as to the ones sent occasionally by the colonial administration: a famous American ornithologist, an honorary Belgian consul from São Paulo, a Mr Arnold from the State Department, the manager of a travelling circus, a trainee physiotherapist, a renowned doctor who had crossed the Atlantic on a raft, a socialist lady senator, a saxophonist etc. So we prepared for Greene’s visit as usual, although we forgot to put a coathanger in his room (cassocks are not supposed to be hung on coathangers), which apparently embarrassed him.

When Greene arrived nobody asked any questions. The fathers went on driving trucks, mixing cement, repairing generators, and went on teaching, preaching and distributing sweets to the children. The sisters cycled from the convent to the school and from the kitchen to the pharmacy. At the time, the mission was teeming with frantic building activity. After years of discussions with the colonial authorities, it had been decided to build a hospital to replace the four-room dispensary which, since my arrival five years before, had served as consulting-room cum laboratory and maternity ward. The fathers were feverishly drawing up blueprints; Edith, my wife, was typing orders. I was ordering equipment; we would have electricity. Nobody had much time to devote to our guest.

In the morning Greene would walk through the meadow to the banks of the Congo, sit in an old pirogue and read until the heat became unbearable. He generally had lunch in the fathers’ house; during the meal the four missionaries would exchange innocent jokes in Flemish, bursting into laughter that left him nonplussed. At the end of the day he would come to our house for a rest on the veranda and dinner with my wife and children. Now and then he joined me in the dispensary and sat on a chair between the door and the open window, observing the patients and asking questions. Twenty years later, he mentioned in passing in a letter to me the ‘fear I felt the first few hours with you in the leper colony’. I hadn’t noticed.

It’s a pity that no one photographed Greene staring at a patient, as he would: for example, at Imbonga Bernard, the man without fingers who had been taught to knit as well as any sister. He wrote, too, in his journal of the woman with the palsied eyelids who could not close her eyes or even blink. ‘The doctor had bought her dark glasses but she would not wear them because they were not a medicine – she had trust only in drugs.’ He added that the patients who had been given orthopaedic shoes because their feet were misshapen put them on only on Sundays.

We tried to protect Greene from people’s curiosity. The most obvious nuisances were those who wanted his opinion on some manuscript they had in a drawer. The number of people in a colonial town looking for a publisher is amazing. They usually showed up after five o’clock, ‘just to have a beer’. We were well rehearsed. As soon as a car was spotted turning off the road and into the long alley of palm trees, Greene would rush into the house, jump through our bedroom window, and out into the forest.

The settlement at Yonda was beginning to encroach on the equatorial forest, whose edges unfolded like huge green cliffs. ‘The great trees with their roots like the ribs of ships. From the plane they had stood from the green jungle carpet, browning at the top like cauliflowers. Their trunks curve a little this way and that, giving the appearance of reptilian life.’ So Greene describes it in Congo Journal. It might well have been while running away from these afternoon bores that he imagined the flight of Deo Gratias, Querry’s boy, into the forest at night, on ‘a rough track which . . . led towards what geographers might have called the centre of Africa’.

Visitors to Yonda often pointed out things I no longer noticed. Greene, by contrast, while a pleasant companion when visiting a retired vet in his cocoa plantation, or strolling among the giant bamboo canes in a dilapidated botanical garden, kept his observations to himself. There was between us a tacit pact of mutual reserve; he would have called it a ‘duty of reticence’. He never asked me about my beliefs, half-beliefs and non-beliefs. The nearest we came to discussing religion was on a Sunday driving to attend Mass at the church in the African township of Coq. He said: ‘Michel, I hope it is not for me that you are going to Mass.’ I returned the question. Harassed by so many people eager to discuss their religious anxieties with him – there was quite a bunch of them – I think he liked my restraint. I also avoided anecdotes that might suggest the framework of a novel. The colonial environment, including the missionary world, is a breeding ground for all kinds of conflict and entanglement. Gratifying, I imagine, to furnish a famous author with a subject.

When I arrived at the leprosarium as a young doctor, I had a fierce battle with some of the missionary sisters regarding the care of the patients, a quarrel between ancients and moderns. It was the perfect scenario for a Greene novel. I did not say a word about it. Twenty-five years later, when we were having lunch together at Felix’s in Antibes, I raised the subject. He told me that when he had been in Yonda he had heard a rumour about the affair, and that he had been grateful to me for not having mentioned it, because it would have ‘spoiled the whole thing’.

In his Congo Journal he describes his morning walk through the meadow down to his pirogue: ‘Egrets like patches of arctic snow stand among the small coffee-coloured cattle. The huge Congo flowing with the massive speed of a rush hour out over the great New York bridges. This had not changed since Conrad’s day.’ As a ship’s officer, Conrad had manoeuvred the wood-burning stern-wheeler, the Roi des Belges, down the Congo, passing the site of Yonda. (Klein, his travelling companion and the inspiration for Kurtz, is buried downstream.) I mentioned Conrad once and immediately got the feeling that I had made a faux pas. I was interested to learn, years later, that the book he was reading when lying in his pirogue was indeed by Conrad, perhaps as a sort of exorcism.

The missionaries at Yonda were very tolerant. Greene wrote about this in his journal soon after he arrived:

The husbands are less inclined to follow their wives than the wives the husbands. The husband will set up in his village with another woman, and when the wife finds a lover to look after her in the colony, the husband descends demanding justice and the return of his ‘dot’ . . . People here are left alone and there are no moral inquisitions.

This attitude is evident throughout the novel. Greene tells the story (a true one) of a man with no fingers or toes who brought to be baptised a baby he had fathered by a woman crippled from polio. ‘There were no questions and no admonitions. The fathers were too busy to bother themselves with what the Church considered sin.’ The fathers really were unconcerned with private lives. In A Burnt-Out Case, however, Father Thomas is indignant that the sisters employ a young teacher who has ‘a baby every year by a different man . . . allowing her to teach with her cradle in the class. She is pregnant again. What kind of an example is that?’ The father superior replies: ‘We are here to help, father, not to condemn.’

I believe that Greene was surprised by what he found in Yonda. Here disease rather than sin took precedence. ‘The priests are more concerned with engineering, electricity, navigation and the like, than with the life of man or God,’ Greene wrote in Congo Journal. Querry ‘has come seeking another form of love and is faced with electric turbines and problems of building, and he fails to understand the priests as much as they fail to understand him’. This might explain why he found it hard to write about what he saw in Yonda. ‘Never had a novel proved more recalcitrant,’ he later said.

From the Congo, Greene flew to Douala in the Cameroons. He wrote us a warm note of thanks, and added: ‘I forgot to tell you that I went to one other leproserie . . . a mixture of the sentimental and the squalid . . . Altogether it made one to realise all the more strongly what you have accomplished at Yonda.’ A couple of weeks later, another letter arrived:

I have just received an account in a local Cameroon paper of a meeting with me in Douala and feel extremely annoyed because I am reported as saying that I preferred the little léproserie of Dibamba to those in the Belgian Congo – better built, industrialised and less human! I am quoted as saying that I would have liked to have passed a fortnight at Dibamba. Needless to say I said none of these things.

I wanted to know more about this place in Dibamba and got a copy of the article. It was described by the clerical interviewer as ‘un peu de tout, à la française’. Greene was presented as ‘ce géant aux yeux clairs, qui prend la vie comme un collégien en vacances’. It was a lyrical elegy, comparing Greene to King Arthur in search of the Grail, a high-class Don Giovanni, the bizarre trio of Epicurus, Rabelais and Saint John the Baptist, as well as Chesterton, Mao Zedong, Maurice Barrès and Victor Hugo. In this orgy of comparisons and endorsements, the Dibamba/Yonda contest is an insignificant and almost ludicrous footnote. I wrote to reassure him:

Please do not worry about the Douala article . . . It could well be that the léproseries in the Congo are less compassionate than those in the Cameroon . . . Africans are not children. We are not here to use them for our self-fulfilment. We are here to help the patients into developing their responsibility as human beings . . . We are not looking for gratitude. We want them to get cured, whenever possible, and then to forget us afterwards . . . It would be good if your Jesuit journalist thought about that.

In the novel Greene has Doctor Colin say: ‘A patient can always detect whether he is loved or whether it is only his leprosy which is loved. I don’t want leprosy loved. I want it eliminated.’

I cannot help asking myself now whether there was a little bit of truth in that Douala interview. Greene later wrote a heartfelt review of a book about the leper colony of Lambaréné where Albert Schweitzer worked in which he claimed that ‘the sentimental hospital offers something to the human mind in pain or despair which the scientific may not be able to do, and the scientific sometimes fails by reason of its own dogmas.’ Yonda was an example of good management, but this has its dangers. Could Greene have foreseen the drift towards a faceless world of cost-effectiveness, where cure is a return on investment, people are human resources, partners are stakeholders, and patients will soon become clients, disguised behind statistics?

The fathers and the sisters made no comment after A Burnt-Out Case was published, just as no questions had been asked while Greene was in Yonda. The book, I suppose, joined the few romans policiers and the stock of missionary journals on the chocolate-coloured dresser in the fathers’ common room. They probably didn’t read it. They didn’t have time.

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Vol. 29 No. 16 · 16 August 2007

It seems likely, as Michel Lechat writes, that Yonda was not the kind of leper settlement that Graham Greene had been looking for (LRB, 2 August). Greene’s treatment of leprosy in A Burnt-Out Case is in many ways anachronistic, as the missionary and leprologist Robert Cochrane remarked when he reviewed the novel in 1961. A Burnt-Out Case looks back to a time when the leper offered the would-be saint the possibility of martyrdom, as its references to Father Damien, the now canonised martyr-priest of the Hawaiian leper colony on Molokai, indicate. Lechat’s fictional other, Dr Colin, remarks that Schweitzer attracts the type who ‘would rather wash the feet with their hair … than clean them with something more antiseptic’. Cherishing the leper, once a mark of sainthood, has become suspect. In the world of the modern leprosarium, as described by Lechat, the danger has gone out of leprosy. Greene’s novel both accepts and regrets this. A Burnt-Out Case has it both ways, exploiting the dread of infection that leprosy has traditionally provoked while presenting a modern leprosarium concerned with curing rather than loving the infected.

I’m not surprised that Greene didn’t like Lechat mentioning Conrad to him. Greene insisted that his Congo was ‘a region of the mind’, but it is clear from both novel and journal that this region is being shared with Conrad. As he travelled upriver, repeating the journey made by Conrad in 1890, he was reading Heart of Darkness and there are traces of Conrad’s story all over A Burnt-Out Case. Fundamentally it offered Greene a narrative structure – the river journey with its stations, the quest for meaning or salvation – that he could use and ironise. But the influence of Conrad created problems. Leper settlements were no longer necessarily among the dark places of the earth, and Yonda, as described by Lechat, certainly wasn’t. But the insistent parallel Greene makes between Querry’s emotional and spiritual numbness and the condition of the leper threatens to reduce the settlement to a place of extremity in which Greene’s hero seeks to recover his ability to feel and suffer. Indeed, Greene’s reassurances to Lechat that he merely wanted the leper settlement as ‘background’ underlines this point. It also recalls Chinua Achebe’s objection to Heart of Darkness: ‘Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind.’ Achebe’s criticism seems more pertinent to A Burnt-Out Case: Greene works much harder to establish sympathy for Querry than Conrad ever does for Kurtz.

Rod Edmond
University of Kent, Canterbury

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