Chasing the Devil: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa in the Footsteps of Graham Greene

  • Tim Butcher
  • Atlas
  • 336 pp.

A modern writer seeks the influences that helped lay the groundwork for novels such as The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American.

Reviewed by Alexis Akre

Africa is a place of imagination, a Western fixation. Even in an age when distance is collapsed and time is always, tirelessly immediate, Africa promises something far off and timeless. Both Graham Greene and Tim Butcher acknowledge a mythic transfixion. Of course, this is a simplified view. Though I’m not sure Greene wanted to dissuade himself, Butcher is not so naïve. And Tim Butcher tackles a more contemporary truth in his book Chasing the Devil, which follows the path Graham Greene took some 75 years earlier.

Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps was published in 1936 after he spent about four weeks trekking through Liberia. His idea was to travel overland through Liberia to satisfy his boyhood visions of adventure and exotic travel. It also gave him a new context in which to write that helped carve out his legacy. He took along his younger socialite cousin for reasons unknown, most likely whim. Greene was himself an inexperienced traveler and this was a trip into a poorly-mapped region. Perhaps it was a timely escape from gloom, an antecedent to an as-yet unhappy marriage. Some have suggested that there may have been something untoward in his relationship with the cousin; she was an odd companion to his uninitiated trekker. In spite of the impracticality of this walk and his far-from-robust constitution, the trip perhaps laid groundwork for future international travels and an interest in intrigue, both of which greatly influenced his acclaimed novels such as The Heart of the Matter and The Quiet American.

This book illuminates not only Graham Greene’s trek through Liberia in the 1930s but also Butcher’s own strangely ambiguous interest in the country. His previous book, Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart, offers perhaps a clue. Thematically similar, this book has him following the route of Henry Morton Stanley (of the famous “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”), who made an expedition through Central Africa in the 1870s. Prior to writing these books, Butcher was an Africa correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London, so his interest in Africa runs deep and he’s certainly no novice.

Butcher, in his earnest preparations, uncovered some significant additions to the narrative of Graham Greene’s adventure, confirming notions that there was a secret mission by pinpointing his affiliation with a group called the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. Liberia, which had been founded by former slaves, was apparently again becoming a hotbed for human trafficking, and was on some international watch lists.

In addition, Butcher cleared his own path through the densely packed psyche of Liberia, uncovering a wounded country while reliving his own traumas. Though Butcher’s writing style has a light touch, a bright-eyed sense of adventure and a literalist’s eye to following Greene’s path, from the beginning he is uneasy; in the way of many adventurers (and writers) before him, he hears occasional whispers in the jungle and sometimes suspects subterfuge behind a flashing smile.

He writes movingly of the tragedies and atrocities he and his fellow journalists witnessed all over the globe. Beginning his trip in Sierra Leone, he skillfully interweaves both the long history of West Africa and the more recent conflict, all while facing his own heartbreaking memories. Looming behind him are the brutal deaths of colleagues and the utter exhaustion and disillusionment of war reporting. But while Butcher recognizes all shades of brutality, his notion that tribalism in Africa is somehow different and more inscrutable than tribalism elsewhere echoes a sentiment that Greene and his contemporaries would have no qualms with, but doesn’t quite resonate now. Butcher allows the mythology of the bush devils to haunt him even after he describes his intimate understanding of war and brutality and its lack of exception in humanity. He describes the particular histories of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and how they overlapped and mutually conspired. His journalistic tendencies paint a clear and contextualized history, yet his authorial voice clouds this with snippets of lore and hearsay.

Butcher’s book highlights not only the differences that 70 years begat but also the stark similarities. While Butcher has an updated approach without Greene’s abject appreciation of an abundance of exotic naked breasts, he still seems as driven as Greene was while managing the same aimlessness. Butcher reflects often on their parallel journeys; there is greater instability in the region now, but much in the bush is revealed to Butcher to be almost exactly the same as when Greene passed through. Both authors seem keen to have some truth revealed through the effort of the journey. It seems that that revelation continues to elude them — and us.

Alexis Akre is a writer and book seller in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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