Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

When I was studying English in the 1980s, Graham Greene, still alive at that time, was - I think - unfashionable. His books of the 1960s included "entertainments" like "Travels with my aunt" and "Our Man in Havana", whilst his more recent novels, thrillers such as "The Human Factor" were still successful, but perhaps not seen as that relevant. Born in 1905, his golden run probably went from "Brighton Rock" in 1938 to "The Quiet American" in 1955.

Its taken me a while to get to Greene as a result, though I read both "The End of the Affair" and his autobiography "A Sort of Life" a few years ago with great pleasure. "The Power and the Glory" was published in 1940 and is, according to John Updike in the introduction of the edition I have, his masterpiece.

Visiting Mexico in the 1930s to document religious persecution - the Catholic church had been effectively outlawed since the 1917 constitution, and under President Calles, the persecution had lead to a civil war - Greene found the material for "The Power and the Glory." The unnamed "whisky priest" has been hiding from the authorities for a number of years, but the net is closing in on him. He still practices his ministry in secret when he can. The poor rural population in the territories where he practiced, protect him as far as they can, the mystique of the Priest continuing after the churches have been abandoned. The two priests who we meet in the novel have taken different paths. Padre Jose has given up his ministry and married, is therefore allowed to live. The whisky priest, a dissolute, who loves brandy, and has a child following a short sexual relationship with a peasant woman, should have done the same, but however bad a priest he is, he cannot give up the only thing that gives his life meaning. We meet him at the beginning of the novel as an English-speaking dentist bumps into him. The priest has decided to take leave on a ship, but there are still a few hours till it goes. He comes back to the dentist, who is visited by a boy who wants some help for his mother. The priest, though he knows he won't be able to do anything much, is drawn to help her. He misses the boat, and so evades being captured again.

Moving from town to town, being able to survive through hiding in barns or other places, he is heading to the border with dreams of turning up in a town where religion can still be practiced. There has been a clampdown from the police authorities, and capturing the whisky priest becomes a political imperative. Any village where he has been sheltered will have a man from the village imprisoned and killed. Yet the authorities don't know what he looks like, so they are relying on informers. At the same time a man who is a bank robber and fugitive is also on the run. The two men's lives will finally become intertwined, but the fear of an armed robber creates a sense of paranoia.

We follow the whisky priest as he slips from place to place - never quite sure who to trust. The priest turns up in the barn of a plantation owner, in the village where his daughter was born, and even the town where the authorities are looking for, being stopped and jailed for being drunk, without them knowing who he is. As his options get less and less, the book sees him ruminate on his faith, his dissolution and the meaning of God in the world. Priests are partly detested for the opulent life they used to lead, charging for mass and baptisms, as the only interlocutors of the Bible for the poor and illiterate. Yet we are not overwhelmed by the politics of the matter, rather we are on a journey with this most unpromising of figures, as he gets close to safety (but not redemption) and capture (and still no redemption, as despite being allowed to do so, Padre Jose refuses to take his confession.) If I'm reminded of another novel its Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" another book which sees the morality of a single (good) man in desolate times, and tests it and tests it again. The same earthy religiosity - a primal thing - that we find in "The Road" has its corollary over half a century before in Greene's "The Power and the Glory." It seems that left to write a story that is so adrift from normal society, Greene's wonderful prose comes into his own. The world is a desperate one (this was published in 1940) and like that contemporary William Golding, we wonder whether redemption is actually something that we actually want - or whether that is what we most fear.

A rumination on good and evil, but also on the choices that we make, that even a bad man, a flawed man might make, this is phenomenal story of religious doubt that gives us such a powerful central character, that we are not meant to like or relate to, but in doing so provides us with some kind of questionable template for life. There is no redemption, for man is corrupt - even the love of his daughter is a corruption; and the services that he provides for the peasantry are cynical transactions - they want to "pay" for them else they won't value them, but they still beat him down on price. There is no love for the church or the priest or the desolate country they are living in, but there is a fear for the alternative - the idea of heaven and hell, of redemption and confession is harder to shake off than the paraphernalia of the church.

Like Updike, I think the book's a masterpiece. 

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