when Graham Greene visited it in 1959 to research the book that became A Burnt-Out Case. He dedicated the novel to Michel Lechat.
Read Michel Lechat's description of his encounter with Graham Greene. The article was originally published in London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 15, 2 August 2007 pages 34-35.
It would be nice to say that Graham Greene just appeared one day in Yonda, the leprosy settlement in the Equateur Province of the then Belgian Congo where I was the doctor, stepping off the gangway of the bishop’s riverboat as Querry does in A Burnt-Out Case. But Greene did not come unannounced. His visit to Yonda had been arranged through a common friend in Brussels. In his letter to this friend, he had expressed the wish ‘for the purposes of a book to spend some weeks in a hospital of the Schweitzer kind in Africa, but run by a religious order’. My first reaction was mixed: Dr Schweitzer was not highly regarded at the time by health professionals, and our settlement was very different from the leproseries that Greene seemed to be looking for. Yonda was a large village near the River Congo, with small brick houses set along avenues bordered by mango trees; it housed more than a thousand leprosy patients. There was no segregation of the ‘lepers’, a cruel and unnecessary measure meant to prevent the transmission of the disease. Leprosy is not particularly contagious, and out of some 100,000 patients at the time in the Congo, no more than 10 per cent would have been infectious. Patients could go freely in and out of the compound; their families lived with them if they chose to. There were schools, and children were examined at regular intervals for the onset of symptoms, which at an early stage are easy to cure. There were workshops, plots of land for cultivation and a dozen dugouts (which we called ‘pirogues’) on the riverbanks. Some patients used to be fishermen, and on the gravel road leading to town one was always coming across patients or their relatives pedalling to the market, carrying fish or piles of vegetables for sale on the backs of their bicycles. Yonda was aiming to become the prototype of a modern institution for the care of leprosy. It didn’t seem what Greene had in mind for his prospective book, and so I did nothing to encourage him to come, though I did spend a Sunday preparing a large chart describing a dozen leproseries in Africa that seemed to me better suited than Yonda to accommodate him.
To tell the truth, I was not keen to have such a visitor. In spite of Yonda’s relative remoteness, it was on its way to becoming if not a tourist attraction, at least a showpiece. I was also apprehensive that our guest, a famous Catholic writer, might upset the delicate balance between myself and the mission. It is not always easy to be a mission doctor, especially when one is also a government employee. How would the father superior react, cycling non-stop along the avenues chewing at his cheroot? Or the father in charge of construction, who in a previous life had taught Greek in a provincial Belgian town? Or the brother in charge of carpentry, who did not speak a word of anything except Frisian, at times mixed with some presumably horrendous expletives in Malay, which he had brought back from years spent in a Japanese concentration camp during World War Two? Not to mention the bishop, described in the Congo Journal as ‘a wonderfully handsome old man with an 18th-century manner – or perhaps the manner of an Edwardian “boulevardier”’? What if this ‘pilgrim of the dry season’ – the sarcastic term used by the colonials to designate passing travellers – did not go to Mass? Could he play bridge?
I went to see the father superior in order to make the arrangements for the visit. He did not show reluctance or surprise. He was quite used to the visitors I brought in, as well as to the ones sent occasionally by the colonial administration: a famous American ornithologist, an honorary Belgian consul from São Paulo, a Mr Arnold from the State Department, the manager of a travelling circus, a trainee physiotherapist, a renowned doctor who had crossed the Atlantic on a raft, a socialist lady senator, a saxophonist etc. So we prepared for Greene’s visit as usual, although we forgot to put a coathanger in his room (cassocks are not supposed to be hung on coathangers), which apparently embarrassed him.
When Greene arrived nobody asked any questions. The fathers went on driving trucks, mixing cement, repairing generators, and went on teaching, preaching and distributing sweets to the children. The sisters cycled from the convent to the school and from the kitchen to the pharmacy. At the time, the mission was teeming with frantic building activity. After years of discussions with the colonial authorities, it had been decided to build a hospital to replace the four-room dispensary which, since my arrival five years before, had served as consulting-room cum laboratory and maternity ward. The fathers were feverishly drawing up blueprints; Edith, my wife, was typing orders. I was ordering equipment; we would have electricity. Nobody had much time to devote to our guest.
It’s a pity that no one photographed Greene staring at a patient, as he would: for example, at Imbonga Bernard, the man without fingers who had been taught to knit as well as any sister. He wrote, too, in his journal of the woman with the palsied eyelids who could not close her eyes or even blink. ‘The doctor had bought her dark glasses but she would not wear them because they were not a medicine – she had trust only in drugs.’ He added that the patients who had been given orthopaedic shoes because their feet were misshapen put them on only on Sundays.
We tried to protect Greene from people’s curiosity. The most obvious nuisances were those who wanted his opinion on some manuscript they had in a drawer. The number of people in a colonial town looking for a publisher is amazing. They usually showed up after five o’clock, ‘just to have a beer’. We were well rehearsed. As soon as a car was spotted turning off the road and into the long alley of palm trees, Greene would rush into the house, jump through our bedroom window, and out into the forest.
The settlement at Yonda was beginning to encroach on the equatorial forest, whose edges unfolded like huge green cliffs. ‘The great trees with their roots like the ribs of ships. From the plane they had stood from the green jungle carpet, browning at the top like cauliflowers. Their trunks curve a little this way and that, giving the appearance of reptilian life.’ So Greene describes it in Congo Journal. It might well have been while running away from these afternoon bores that he imagined the flight of Deo Gratias, Querry’s boy, into the forest at night, on ‘a rough track which . . . led towards what geographers might have called the centre of Africa’.
Visitors to Yonda often pointed out things I no longer noticed. Greene, by contrast, while a pleasant companion when visiting a retired vet in his cocoa plantation, or strolling among the giant bamboo canes in a dilapidated botanical garden, kept his observations to himself. There was between us a tacit pact of mutual reserve; he would have called it a ‘duty of reticence’. He never asked me about my beliefs, half-beliefs and non-beliefs. The nearest we came to discussing religion was on a Sunday driving to attend Mass at the church in the African township of Coq. He said: ‘Michel, I hope it is not for me that you are going to Mass.’ I returned the question. Harassed by so many people eager to discuss their religious anxieties with him – there was quite a bunch of them – I think he liked my restraint. I also avoided anecdotes that might suggest the framework of a novel. The colonial environment, including the missionary world, is a breeding ground for all kinds of conflict and entanglement. Gratifying, I imagine, to furnish a famous author with a subject.
When I arrived at the leprosarium as a young doctor, I had a fierce battle with some of the missionary sisters regarding the care of the patients, a quarrel between ancients and moderns. It was the perfect scenario for a Greene novel. I did not say a word about it. Twenty-five years later, when we were having lunch together at Felix’s in Antibes, I raised the subject. He told me that when he had been in Yonda he had heard a rumour about the affair, and that he had been grateful to me for not having mentioned it, because it would have ‘spoiled the whole thing’.
In his Congo Journal he describes his morning walk through the meadow down to his pirogue: ‘Egrets like patches of arctic snow stand among the small coffee-coloured cattle. The huge Congo flowing with the massive speed of a rush hour out over the great New York bridges. This had not changed since Conrad’s day.’ As a ship’s officer, Conrad had manoeuvred the wood-burning stern-wheeler, the Roi des Belges, down the Congo, passing the site of Yonda. (Klein, his travelling companion and the inspiration for Kurtz, is buried downstream.) I mentioned Conrad once and immediately got the feeling that I had made a faux pas. I was interested to learn, years later, that the book he was reading when lying in his pirogue was indeed by Conrad, perhaps as a sort of exorcism.
The missionaries at Yonda were very tolerant. Greene wrote about this in his journal soon after he arrived:
This attitude is evident throughout the novel. Greene tells the story (a true one) of a man with no fingers or toes who brought to be baptised a baby he had fathered by a woman crippled from polio. ‘There were no questions and no admonitions. The fathers were too busy to bother themselves with what the Church considered sin.’ The fathers really were unconcerned with private lives. In A Burnt-Out Case, however, Father Thomas is indignant that the sisters employ a young teacher who has ‘a baby every year by a different man . . . allowing her to teach with her cradle in the class. She is pregnant again. What kind of an example is that?’ The father superior replies: ‘We are here to help, father, not to condemn.’
I believe that Greene was surprised by what he found in Yonda. Here disease rather than sin took precedence. ‘The priests are more concerned with engineering, electricity, navigation and the like, than with the life of man or God,’ Greene wrote in Congo Journal. Querry ‘has come seeking another form of love and is faced with electric turbines and problems of building, and he fails to understand the priests as much as they fail to understand him’. This might explain why he found it hard to write about what he saw in Yonda. ‘Never had a novel proved more recalcitrant,’ he later said.
From the Congo, Greene flew to Douala in the Cameroons. He wrote us a warm note of thanks, and added: ‘I forgot to tell you that I went to one other leproserie . . . a mixture of the sentimental and the squalid . . . Altogether it made one to realise all the more strongly what you have accomplished at Yonda.’ A couple of weeks later, another letter arrived:
I wanted to know more about this place in Dibamba and got a copy of the article. It was described by the clerical interviewer as ‘un peu de tout, à la française’. Greene was presented as ‘ce géant aux yeux clairs, qui prend la vie comme un collégien en vacances’. It was a lyrical elegy, comparing Greene to King Arthur in search of the Grail, a high-class Don Giovanni, the bizarre trio of Epicurus, Rabelais and Saint John the Baptist, as well as Chesterton, Mao Zedong, Maurice Barrès and Victor Hugo. In this orgy of comparisons and endorsements, the Dibamba/Yonda contest is an insignificant and almost ludicrous footnote. I wrote to reassure him:
In the novel Greene has Doctor Colin say: ‘A patient can always detect whether he is loved or whether it is only his leprosy which is loved. I don’t want leprosy loved. I want it eliminated.’
I cannot help asking myself now whether there was a little bit of truth in that Douala interview. Greene later wrote a heartfelt review of a book about the leper colony of Lambaréné where Albert Schweitzer worked in which he claimed that ‘the sentimental hospital offers something to the human mind in pain or despair which the scientific may not be able to do, and the scientific sometimes fails by reason of its own dogmas.’ Yonda was an example of good management, but this has its dangers. Could Greene have foreseen the drift towards a faceless world of cost-effectiveness, where cure is a return on investment, people are human resources, partners are stakeholders, and patients will soon become clients, disguised behind statistics?
The fathers and the sisters made no comment after A Burnt-Out Case was published, just as no questions had been asked while Greene was in Yonda. The book, I suppose, joined the few romans policiers and the stock of missionary journals on the chocolate-coloured dresser in the fathers’ common room. They probably didn’t read it. They didn’t have time.
Michel Lechat's wife of 57 years, Edith Dasnoy, is a well reputed artist (paintings, drawings). She has published an album of the drawings she made 50 years ago at the leprosy settlement in the Congo where Michel Lechat worked. The drawings were recently discovered in an attics after the death of her father (Albert Dasnoy, himself a famous painter ) and portray the life of the patients along the Congo River in the 1950's, see bookcover above, and cick at caption, to see a collection of pictures from the book!
When Belgian Congo became independent, Michel Lechat had to leave the Congo "until he would receive further information how to handle the leprosy station" to which he had given all he had. He never got any information. He immigrated to the US (see his CV), and eventually returned als Professor to the University of Leuven, first becoming the foremost expert in leprocy in the developing world and later a specialist in the "ecology of natural disasters." Both have brought him much fame, and many extraodinary meetings, a few of which are documented below.
Michel Lechat lives now retired in Brussels, in an old house surrounded by a garden, a real oasis one could call it.
Hermann Maurer met him there (and was met with overhelming hospitality) on the occassion of the annual conference of the Academia Europaea, as documented by the next two pictures.
Any further pages in alphabetic order of their title as created for or by you.
Just click at "Create new page", then type a short title and click OK, then add information on the empty page presented to you (including maybe a picture from your harddisk or a pdf-file by using the "Upload" Button) and finally click at "Save".