"Journey Without Maps" by Graham Greene
"Today our world seems peculiarly susceptible to brutality. There is a touch of nostalgia in the pleasure we take in gangster novels, in characters who have so agreeably simplified their emotions that they have begun living again at a level below the cerebral. We, like Wordsworth, are living after a war and revolution, and these half-castes fighting with bombs between the cliffs of skyscrapers seem more likely that we to be aware of Proteus rising from the sea. It is not, of course, that one wishes to stay forever at that level, but when one sees what unhappiness, to what peril of extinction centuries of cerebration have brought us, one sometimes has a curiosity to discover if one can from what we have come, to recall at which point we went astray."
Journey Without Maps was written before the Second World War, though certain passages in this book seem to indicate later revisions. It is a travelogue, and in many respects resembles Rory Stewart's The Places in Between, also reviewed here. In this case the subject of discussion is Liberia, and the author's trek through that part of the world.
I saw The Blood Diamond, a movie about the Liberian diamond trade, not long before reading this book. It is interesting to compare the two images of the place. In The Blood Diamond one sees a Liberia torn apart by the predations of Western powers. In Journey Without Maps one sees a much younger Liberia, untouched as yet by the diamond trade, though there are intimations of struggles yet to come. The Liberia of Journey Without Maps is a nation of freed slaves and tribesman, a place where illness, not violence, is the Thing Most Feared.
Even if I hadn't read The Places in Between or seen The Blood Diamond, I'm sure I would have enjoyed this book. Greene's writing brings to mind similar travelogues by Maugham, and at times he even echoes sentiments voiced by Conrad, in books such as Lord Jim. Greene doesn't just draw upon memories of Liberia for Journey Without Maps, but also memories of England, memories of Europe, and a vast body of Western literature.
This book has a dreamy quality that I thoroughly enjoyed. I can imagine reading it on a beach somewhere, maybe in Thailand or Malaysia, somewhere remote. I once read half of The Gulag Archipelago while on vacation on Taiwan's Orchid Island, and Journey Without Maps had me thinking not only of Liberia, but also of similar, dream-like books, read in places far removed from home.
This book isn't as immediate or as moving as other novels by Greene. It is definitely lighter reading. But it is this very lightness that makes Journey Without Maps effective. It is a picture of a vanished Africa, located within a vanished time, locked within an imagination that took enough liberties to make Journey Without Maps universal.