Friday, May 17, 2013


I read Greene's "The Heart of The Matter" in college, loved its dark and mysterious look at marriage, adultery, religious dogma and British imperialism, and for years have been looking for a reason to dig into Graham Greene's fiction again. I figured I'd start with his most renown novel, the one he called his favorite and which is considered the leading pillar in his series of "Catholic novels". Greene was a Catholic himself, though suffered from slings and arrows from the church for not kowtowing to the Vatican's flattery of itself. It's clear from this novel, and from what I know about Greene, that his own relationship with the church was conflicted and confused, yet something that he felt to be integral and very important to whom he was as a man.

So it is with "THE POWER AND THE GLORY" and its protagonist, an unnamed "whiskey priest" on the run in 1920s Mexico from the governmental forces cracking down on the Church. The book is a fugitive story, one in which the priest is running both from the law (he'll be immediately shot, if captured, as priests before him were) and from his own sin. At some level, he's even running from the church and its dogma. He loves to drink his brandy (some of the best passages in the book concern his desperate bargainings for alcohol), and he loves the fruit of his relationship that came from "laying down with a woman" while he was still a priest. The little girl that is his daughter is someone we meet early on in the novel, and she absolutely despises the suddenly-arrived man that she knows to be her father. Our priest is tormented in many ways by his past, his thoughts, and certainly by the oppressive government, but he compels himself to continue to run for his own sake throughout the book.

Greene's language and characters are masterful. Just as I was taught "The Heart of the Matter" in college as a great work of literature, so too is this book. It has made several "Best English-language Books of All Time" lists, for what it's worth. The squalor and heat of Mexico are vivid and achingly suffocating in Greene's telling. Beetles splatter against sun-baked walls and crackle to the ground. Men seek shade and hammocks, while starving children and women aimlessly shuffle around them. The poor people of the villages are painted as almost uniformly Catholic, almost to a person having to live a lie and renounce their faith lest they too be shot. Yet when the Priest arrives, everyone needs to confess their many welled-up sins to him, and they jostle for position and cajole him return to the priestly life, just this one time.

While you've got this sort of languid, meandering sort of storytelling, you've also got the urgency of the story, the narrative of the priest one step ahead of the men who want to capture and kill him, urging the story onward. It's fantastic stuff. I definitely understand this book's place in the canon, and would love your recommendations for the next Greene book I should read if you'd be so kind as to provide them.