A Burnt-Out Case opens on a slow-moving steamer traveling into the African jungle on the Congo river. The boat is captained by a priest and carries one passenger, a man we’ll come to know as Querry. This passenger is conspicuously silent during the journey, both because he and the captain struggle in each others' languages and because he is racked with ennui. Querry does not know himself where he is going or why – he is simply looking to escape from the life he led in Europe.
Also on board are several native African crewmen. One evening, while the captain and Querry listlessly play cards these Africans can be heard singing on the deck. The captain informs Querry that they are singing about the quotidian faces and events of the day. These faces include Querry’s – the Africans sing that Querry must be rich, for he drinks whiskey every day, but that he never shares it with anyone and never tells anyone where he is going. Sometimes in the evening unexpected visitors visit the boat and socialize with the captain. Querry remains apart.
After six days on the river, the boat arrives at an African seminary where they stop for supplies and conversation. Querry finds the music and laughter of the seminary students irritating. Looking to escape, he wanders into the dark, where he finds the Africans also dancing and laughing. He returns to the seminary and meets the Superior of the institution, who asks Querry whether he wants anything. “I want nothing,” Querry replies.
Chapter Two of Part One brings a change of scene – we meet Doctor Colin as he examines a leprosy patient and declares him cured. This patient, Deo Gratias, has lost all of his fingers and toes and dreads the possibility of returning to society outside of the leproserie where he has been treated. After seeing several additional leprosy patients, Doctor Colin joins Father Joseph as the Bishop’s boat approaches their dock. Querry disembarks and introduces himself to Doctor Colin, saying that he will stay at the leproserie because the boat has reached its last stop.
We learn something of the leproserie, a medical service supported jointly by the state and by the Catholic Order in the Congo. Doctor Colin, the leproserie’s only doctor, and the Superior of the Order (not to be confused with the Superior of the seminary) go over their finances and chat about local society, such as it is. The Superior says that he has had an irritating visit from M. Rycker, a local palm-oil factory manager and one-time seminary student whose primary joy in life is the sanctimonious discussion of theology.
Doctor Colin asks the Superior whether Deo Gratias can remain at the Order as a worker. Deo Gratias is “a burnt-out case,” a leprosy patient who, though cured, has suffered psychological alienation and self-loathing as a result of his illness. Doctor Colin also asks about Querry. The two men agree that he is not a leprophil – a pious soul attracted to the suffering of lepers – though they cannot agree what to make of him otherwise.
Part One of Greene’s novel sets the tone and pace for the work to follow. It is, when viewed from a distance, a rather simple book with few twists and turns. However, it is written in the dense “Graham Greene” style – both plain and poetic – which can make for quite a challenge. Greene has Querry provide something like a defense of this approach later in the book, when he tells Doctor Colin, “The subject of a novel is not the plot.” This is perhaps less true of some novels than others – the subject of a swashbuckler may well be swashbuckling – but it is certainly true of A Burnt-Out Case.
So what, then, is the subject of this novel? Most clearly, it is a study of disillusionment and meaninglessness in the face of success. We will come to know that Querry is a very famous man – an architect of the highest stature, famous for designing some of the most celebrated modern cathedrals in Europe and America. How he went from that lofty position, the toast of his profession, to his present state – an anonymous, taciturn sad sack hiding from life – is the subject of the novel.
We might start with his name – Querry evokes two words, “query” and “quarry.” Both provide clues to his character. The first, which commonly means “question,” also means “doubt.” Querry is certainly a man of questions and doubts alike, as we see already. Despite his ennui, he finds it irresistible to try to poke holes in religious dogma, as when he sees an optical illusion in which two men appear to stand on the river and he asks the captain whether this might be taken for “an explanation of how Christ was thought to be walking on water” (13). Querry says that he has given up believing in God, but his need to question the religious authorities and affirm his disbelief points to a deeper, troubled state. He is a man in doubt – agnostic rather than atheist.
As for the second word hiding in Querry’s name, “quarry,” we will see soon enough that he shall find himself hunted by the world he abandoned. Indeed, one might wonder whether Greene hasn’t gestured toward something clever in setting this novel in Africa. The book is a sort of “big game” hunt, with Querry as the (professionally if not literally “big”) game. The obnoxious hunter, M. Rycker, has not appeared on the scene as yet except in a passing mention.
The other characters in Part One are treated with less attention. Doctor Colin – whose name resonates with the word “colon,” a French term that denotes “a colonial settler or farmer, especially one in a French colony” (Oxford English Dictionary, def. 3.2), and we are indeed in the French Congo (though we never get our bearings exactly). Doctor Colin immediately comes off as an attractive character – dedicated to his work, able to work side-by-side with priests though he is an atheist, and understanding of the psychological suffering that comes with leprosy.
His ironically named patient, Deo Gratias (Latin for “Thanks be to God”), is our first identified example of “the burnt-out case,” a person who, though sound in body, has been psychologically as well as physically mutilated and rendered unfit for life in the outside world. Though we never get to know Deo Gratias too well – and there is a criticism to be made that Graham Greene, throughout his body of work as well as here, doesn’t show much interest in individualizing his non-white characters – he prepares us for the diagnosis of Querry as a “burnt-out case” as well.