The Power and The Glory is Graham Greene’s widely-acclaimed masterpiece and is listed as one of his many titles that qualifies a place in 1001 books to read before you die. Set in the Mexico of the 1930′s – a time when the Catholic church was viciously persecuted by an atheistic government. The catholic clergies have either fled, forced to marry, or executed. Only one priest remains – he has no name as befits his symbolic status, but was called “whisky” priest. A priest who has fathered, in a drunken moment, a daughter, and drinks, a priest who is flawed and sins. I too, was puzzled over this little known fact. Mexico being synonym to a devout Catholic nation, it’s hard to believe that priests are wanted for their lives. A quick search of Wikipedia gives me some of the background of this novel:
During the 1930s, the Mexican government is effectively controlled by Plutarco Elías Calles, who strove to suppress the Catholic Church. Mexico formed part of what Pope Pius XI called the Terrible Triangle, along with the other socialist and communist states of the Soviet Union and Spain. The persecution was especially severe in the province of Tabasco, where the anti-clerical governor Tomás Garrido Canabal had founded and actively encouraged “fascist” paramilitary groups (called the “Red-Shirts”) and succeeded in closing all the churches in the state; forcing the priests to marry and give up their soutanes.
Throughout the book, Greene refers to the border as being to the north, as well as the sea as being to the south, when in fact the Bay of Campeche is situated north of Tabasco and its border with Chiapas to the south. However, most of the descriptions of travel (usually arduous) and places (usually desolate) are accurate and based on Greene’s 1938 journey to Tabasco, which he chronicled in The Lawless Roads. Many years later, Greene said that it was while in Tabasco that he first started to become a Christian.
The plot is slow moving. What made it for me were the inner dialogues the said priest has to deal with his growing despair, his religious doubts, and his never-ending struggle against the joint temptations of alcohol and pride. An all too familiar theme and hallmark of many of Graham Greene’s novels. The priest’s hunt and his eventual capture should be the stuff which martyrs are made, but the priest knows that he doesn’t measure up to the martyrs of the great saints – his soul is sullied by his own repeated sins, and he is afraid that in his final moments he will think not of God but of fear, and death. Greene powerfully showcases the conflicting pulls of a good religion on a bad man or a bad man who tries to do the right thing.
He is on the run for eight years. In a contradictory turn of event, he has chosen to stay because the people of the village need him – for confession, to administer the sacraments. It is hard to turn the villagers down because for many years the villagers have lived without a priest. Time and again, instead of making his escape, he turns around to administer to the spiritual need of a fellow human being, how do you deny a human being from the mere request of confession and the salvation of his soul?
It sometimes seemed to him that venial sins – impatience, an unimportant lie, pride, a neglected opportunity – cut you off from grace more completely than the worst sins of all. Then, in his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; no in his corruption he had learnt ….
Typical of Greene’s novels, I am not endeared to any of the characters he had created. Yet, what’s interesting about his novels is that Greene does not paint a clear picture of who should be sympathised with and who should be loathed. His characters are all capable of doing bad and good at the same time. The priest’s predicament should draw in the most sympathy, yet villagers died because of him, and the priest continues to endanger those around him by not voluntarily martyring himself. The lieutenant, is loathed because he is pursuing the whiskey priest, but one scene particularly reveals his intense compassion for children. The mestizo is probably the most hated character in the novel. But why shouldn’t he turn the priest in when the he had the chance?
What a fool he had been to think that he was strong enough to stay when others fled. What an impossible fellow I am, he thought, and how useless. I have done nothing for anybody. I might just as well have never lived. His parents were dead – soon he wouldn’t even be a memory – perhaps after all he was not at the moment afraid of damnation even the fear of pain was in the background. He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, which nothing done at all. It seemed to him, at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew not that at the end there was only one thing that counted – to be a saint.
Greene originally titled this book and had it published under the title: “The Labyrinthine Ways.” I don’t quite see how the title “The Power and the Glory” fits in with the story. I read the first 60 pages when I was caught in a traffic on my way back from holiday. For me it pales in comparison with the other three novels of Greene that I have read, namely The Quiet American, The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter. If you like to explore the deeper meanings behind this cat and mouse chase of a novel, and what it means to keep your faith, you might like this one.
Lizzy’s Literary Life: “Where is the power and the glory in this novel? Determine that and you’ve understood the heart of the matter.”
Part of 1001 books to read before you die Challenge.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage Classics, 2005, originally published in 1940. Length: 220 pages, Setting: 1930’s Mexico, Source: Library Loot. Finished reading at 5th November 2010.