The essence of the matter
The action takes place in 1942 in West Africa, in an unnamed British colony. The protagonist is the deputy chief of police of the capital city, Major Henry Skoby, a man who is incorruptible and who is therefore a loser. The chief of police is going to resign, but Skobi, for whom it would be logical to become his successor, is not appointed to this post, but they are going to send a younger and more energetic person. Scobie’s wife Louise is distressed and disappointed. She asks her husband to resign and go with her to South Africa, but he refuses – he is too used to these places and besides did not accumulate enough funds to move. From day to day his wife becomes more and more irritable, and Skobi is increasingly harder to endure.
In a fit of Scooby’s malaria, a dream is dreaming, where the signature of Dicky under Pemberton’s suicide note oddly merges with Tikki’s nickname given by Skoby’s wife, and the death of the twenty-six-year-old district commissioner of Bamba becomes a prologue to the future fate of the protagonist.
All that happened makes Skobi change his principles for the first time and borrow money from Youssef under interest to send his wife to South Africa. Thus he becomes dependent on the Syriac, but he does not hurry to turn to Skobi for help in his affairs. On the contrary, he himself offers help-in the hope of getting rid of the rival, the Syriac-Catholic Tallit, Yusef puts diamonds in the crook of a parrot belonging to a traveling cousin of the Tallit, and then Scobie informs about it. Diamonds are found, but Tallit is charging that Youssef gave Skobi a bribe. Feeling embarrassed that he asked for debt, Skobi nonetheless rejects the charge, although he later informs the police chief about the deal with Youssef to clear his conscience.
Shortly after Louise’s departure, the passengers of the sunken ship are rescued in the sea, who were in the open sea for forty days in boats. Skobi is present when they land on shore. All the rescued are severely depleted, many are sick. In front of Skobi, a girl dies, reminding him of the death of her own nine-year-old daughter. Among the rescued is a young woman, Helen Rolt, who lost her husband during the shipwreck, with whom she lived for only a month. Experiencing a keen pity for all the weak and defenseless, Skobi is especially excited about how she touches the album for brands with childlike touch, as if it can be saved in it. From pity grows tenderness, out of tenderness – a love affair, although between him and Helen the difference is thirty years. Thus begins an endless chain of lies, which leads the hero to death. Meanwhile, clouds are gathering over his head: Wilson, who suspected him of secret affairs with Youssef, to top it all, is witnessing how Skobi at two o’clock in the morning leaves Helen’s house. Sympathy for his wife Skobi and professional duty make him fix the oversight of the major through Yusef’s servant.
From the loneliness and ambiguity of her position, Helen arranges Scobie scene. To convince her of her feelings. Scobie wrote her a love letter. It is intercepted by Youssef, who blackmails Scobie, forcing the ship captain of the Portuguese ship Esperanza to smuggle diamonds. Scobie becomes more and more entangled in her lies.
At this point, a wife returns from South Africa. She makes Scobie go with her to the sacrament. For this, Skobi must confess. But he loves Helen too much to lie to God, as if he repents of what he has done and is ready to give it up, so he does not receive absolution from confession. The communion becomes a grave test for him: he is compelled to partake, not repent of mortal sin, just to reassure his wife, and thereby commits another mortal sin. The hero is torn between a sense of responsibility to his wife, pity and love for Helen and fear of eternal torment. He feels that he is tormenting everyone who surrounds him, and begins to prepare his own way for retreat. And then he finds out that he is still appointed chief of police. But he is already too confused. He begins to seem to be spied on by the faithful servant of Ali, who served for fifteen years. Ali becomes witness to the meeting between Skobi and Helen; he is present in the room when Yusef’s servant brings a diamond to Skobi’s gift, and Skobi decides to take a desperate step. He goes to Youssef’s office, which is located in the pier of the pier, and tells the Syrians about his suspicions. Youssef summons Ali to himself, ostensibly on business, and orders one of his men to kill him.
The death of Ali, foreseen and still unexpected, becomes the last straw, forcing Scobie to make the final decision. He goes to the doctor with a complaint about the heart and a bad dream, and Dr. Travis prescribes to him sleeping pills. Within ten days, Skobi pretends to take pills, and he keeps them for the decisive day so that he can not be suspected of committing suicide.
After the death of Scobie Wilson, who had previously often told Louise about the betrayal of her husband, again repeats this. And then Louise confesses that she knew about everything for a long time, – she wrote one of her friends – that’s why she came back. She draws Wilson’s attention to her husband’s diary, and he notices that records of insomnia are made by other inks. But Louise does not want to believe in her husband’s suicide, believing him to be a believer. Yet she shares her doubts with the priest, Father Rank, but he angrily sweeps her fantasies, recalling with tenderness Skobi and saying: “He truly loved God.”
Louise herself favorably accepts Wilson’s recognition of love and gives him the hope that eventually he will marry him. And for Helen with the death of Skobi, life finally loses all meaning.