It is with some trepidation that I set out to write a review of this famous novel about a Mexican priest on the run from the authorities who are out to kill him and all other Roman Catholic priests they find. The story is based on a true happening in history in Mexico back in the 1920s when the government ran a campaign of religious persecution and hundreds of priests were rounded up and murdered and their churches destroyed.
My discomfort stems from two sources. The first is that I don’t always find reading Graham Greene an exhilarating experience. To me he’s a rather dour, negative-sounding writer. Indeed, after reading this novel, I picked up a copy of “The Life of Graham Greene” by Norman Sherry, the famous 1989 biography and was rather amused to find the following statement, referring to “The Lawless Roads”, Greene’s earlier book about his travels in Mexico.
“‘One tires’, wrote one reviewer,’ of Mr. Greene’s dyspeptic descriptions of the hotels, the meals, and the sanitary facilities of Mexico.’ The New York Times pointed out the strange fact that ‘wherever he went, ugliness stalked him and leered at him from things, and beasts and humans’, and that he appeared to be ‘one who infallibly attracts to himself bad food and bad smells and bad people. One suspects that, even at the North Pole, Mr. Greene would be harassed by mental mosquitoes.'”
My reading tastes run to more upbeat writers.
My other cause for reluctance about reviewing this novel is that it is so highly praised by so many critics and readers and I found it such hard going. Many consider it Greene’s masterpiece. I read somewhere that it is on a list of the 500 greatest novels ever written. Indeed, it’s not at all difficult to find statements like, “One of the finest novels of the 20th Century” applied to it.
Part of my dilemma is that I’m not very religious and I found all the talk and speculation about sin and repentance and guilt and confession and forgiveness and being worthy of heaven rather foreign. And, heaven knows, there’s lots of it here.
The story is based on an actual event in Mexican history when, in 1926, then President Calles began a persecution of the Roman Catholic Church by burning churches and killing priests and, in general, creating a Godless country. The reason for the persecution was what the government called the Church’s greed and debauchery. The campaign was more successful in some states than in others. Tabasco was the most rabid persecutor and the Governor, Tomas Garrido Canabal, actually drove every priest out of the state. Canabal was determined to show that a well-run society was possible without allowing any place for religion. Churches were destroyed and the stones used to pave roads. To protect the populace he also outlawed alcohol and jazz. The importation of saxophones was banned. One follower was so devoted to the cause he carried a business card which explained that he was the personal enemy of God. In some cases a citizen could be severely penalized for saying “Adios” simply because it referred to God.
Greene took this background and created a priest on the run who is being relentlessly pursued by an implacable army lieutenant determined to liberate his country from the Church’s evils. The priest is essentially the last survivor, all other priests having faced firing squads. In fact, in writing this review I just realized that the author never gives him a name. In other words, he emerges as an abstraction, a symbol. Greene has added other elements to the man’s character. He is a whiskey priest. His weakness is alcoholic in nature. Also, he has fathered a daughter at some time in the past. Thus the scene is set for an eventual confrontation between these two men.
While he is on the run the priest meets up with various Mexicans who expect him to perform his Christian duties – i.e. hear confessions and perform the Mass. Thus, while he would like to escape his pursuers, his obligations to his faith keep calling him back into danger.
That’s all well and good but eventually the two men do meet up and long dialogues ensue which simply became a bit too religious and esoteric for my humble tastes. There were too many passages like the following:
(The priest is speaking). “We’ve always said the poor are blessed and the rich are going to find it hard to get into heaven. Why should we make it hard for the poor man, too? Oh, I know we’re told to give to the poor, to see they are not hungry – hunger can make a man do evil just as much as money can. But why should we give the poor power? It’s better to let him die in dirt and wake in heaven – so long as we don’t push his face in the dirt.”
“I hate your reasons,” the lieutenant said. “I don’t want reasons. If you see somebody in pain, people like you reason and reason. You say – pain’s a good thing, perhaps he’ll be better for it one day. I want to let my heart speak.”
“At the end of a gun?”
“Yes, at the end of a gun.”
Try as I might I have the greatest difficulty imagining this murderous lieutenant saying something like: “I want to let my heart speak.” I think that’s more like ‘Greene-speak’. However, pages of that kind of dialogue simply leave me cold. So I just couldn’t get into the spirit of the story. It all seemed rather remote and abstract. And to say any more about what happens to the priest would only give away the ending of the novel, which I refuse to do.
In my humble O: I think this one hinges on whether or not you’re a believer to start off with.
The Power and the Glory
By Graham Greene
Available from Amazon Books: Paperback