In 1935, Graham Greene, hoping to find the human "heart of darkness", embarked on an ambitious (foolhardy?) expedition into unmapped Liberia. JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS is the book he wrote when he returned. More than simply a travel journal, it stands tall amongst both English travel literature and Graham Greene's works.
Greene traveled with his female cousin, Barbara Greene (who also wrote a book on the expedition, "Too Late to Turn Back"). From Freetown, in Sierra Leone (then a British colony), they traveled by rail to near the border with Liberia. Then, with a few native servants and about 25 native carriers, they trekked 350 miles across northeastern Liberia and then southwest to the coast, arriving in Grand Bassa four weeks later. Along the way they encountered and endured heat, torpor, and myriads of cockroaches, ants, spiders, jiggers, and rats. They also witnessed exotic native life and customs, particularly the dances of masked devils, and they were exposed to some of the mysteries of the secret bush societies. But they were equally a novel curiosity to many of the villagers they met, who would gather around the open hut provided them at the end of a day's march:
"There was nothing you could do without their noticing it; to draw a handkerchief from the pocket caused a craning of necks. It worked a little on the nerves, this constant stare; but you had to recognize the superiority of their attitude over the white man's to something strange. We were as good as a circus; they had no wish to stuff us or skin us or put us in cages."
Greene is particularly good in his commentary (critical, of course) on European colonialism - though at the time Liberia was one of only two political entities on the African continent not ruled directly by whites (Abyssinia was the other).
The book fails, inevitably, in its effort to plumb the depths of the human psyche, which seems to be the underlying reason that Greene, having evidently had some recent personal experience with psychoanalysis, undertook the trip. Realizing (and this was even before the outbreak of WWII) "what unhappiness, * * * what peril of extinction centuries of cerebration have brought us", Greene wanted to discover "from what we have come, to recall at which point we went astray." There is something odd and maybe dated about such faith in the psychoanalysis of homo sapiens. Even though Greene discovered no all-explanatory secrets on his venture into the Liberian heart of darkness, he did not return home altogether empty. JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS contains various and sundry observations about humanity and the human condition that are percipient and/or provocative. Greene also discovered some things about himself, as reflected in the following: "I had discovered in myself a passionate interest in living. I had always assumed before, as a matter of course, that death was desirable."
Much of the writing serves as a splendid example of slightly ornate British prose. On the whole JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS is one of the better, and more literate, travel books that I have read. It also holds up very well with the passage of time.
ADDENDUM (20 Sept. 2011): In 2009 journalist and author Tim Butcher re-traced the trek across Liberia of Graham and Barbara Greene, which formed the basis for his recent book "Chasing the Devil". Butcher's book contains a wealth of background information about Greene's expedition, including the fact that he was on a fact-finding mission of sorts on behalf of The Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. I highly recommend "Chasing the Devil", especially for those who enjoyed reading JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS.