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Journey Without Maps

Journey Without Maps (1936) is Graham Greene's account of his travels as a young man in Liberia, a one-month walk north to south through the country. I enjoyed this one for several reasons. First, Greene's novels are told in different voices. There are the hard-boiled narrators of his potboilers and the literary storytellers of his more serious works, and so to hear Greene's actual voice was new for me. Second, the account itself is interesting, and Greene had plenty of time on the long walk to look back on his life growing up, and he includes that reflection in the account because it becomes in a sense part of the journey. Actually, there are a lot of comparisons between Greene's life back home, as well as European civilization in general, and life in Liberia. And he throws psychoanalysis into that too, writing:

The method of psychoanalysis 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.

I've read that some of what Greene wrote in this book isn't accurate. I looked up one of the tribes (the Buzies) he encountered but couldn't find this name online, and Google Maps didn't know quite a few of the villages he mentioned. Though, you can't blame Greene considering that, according to him, only two rudimentary maps of the country existed when he visited (the American one with a blank band through its center with only the word "CANNIBALS" crossing it).

Greene meets a few peculiar characters in the book, drinks whisky daily, gets very sick towards the end, and makes lots of observations, all written with his singular style and gift for understanding human nature.

Some parts that stuck out:

It seems to be forgotten that Christianity is an Eastern religion to which Western pagans have been quite successfully converted.

He had fallen from a palm-tree gathering nuts, had broken his arm, and feeling its limp uselessness had taken a knife and cut it off at the elbow.

I had never got used to mice in the wainscot, I was afraid of moths. It was an inherited fear, I shared my mother’s terror of birds, couldn’t touch them, couldn’t bear the feel of their hearts beating in my palm. I avoided them as I avoided ideas I didn’t like, the idea of eternal life and damnation.

Of the Buzie tribe, Graham writes:

Every head of a family in this tribe had his sword and wore it when he left his village, every young man had his dagger, and even the tool of the men working on the farms, the broad-bladed cutlass in its beautifully-worked leather sheath, had an air of chivalry, of an older civilization than the tin shacks on the Coast. Even the poorer tribes beyond the Buzie country, the Gios and the Manos, with their loin-cloths and sores, were not more neglected than were the natives of a Protectorate under the care of a single sanitary inspector.

But what had astonished me about Africa was that it had never been really strange. Gibraltar and Tangier – those extended just parted hands – seemed more than ever to represent an unnatural breach. The ‘heart of darkness' was common to us both. Freud has made us conscious as we have never been before of those ancestral threads which still exist in our unconscious minds to lead us back. The need, of course, has always been felt, to go back and begin again. Mungo Park, Livingstone, Stanley, Rimbaud, Conrad represented only another method to Freud’s, a more costly, less easy method, calling for physical as well as mental strength. The writers, Rimbaud and Conrad, were conscious of this purpose, but one is not certain how far the explorers knew the nature of the fascination which worked on them in the dirt, the disease, the barbarity and the familiarity of Africa.


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