I started to look at photos of the soaring church towers of Spain the other day, thinking of turning them into a photo post, but by a series of those associations that you afterwards can never explain, I ended up with my tattered and bath-soaked copy of Graham Greene’s best novel in my hand instead.
(You’ll have to wait for the church towers.)
The Power and the Glory
I don’t think I’ve taken it off the shelf once in the past twenty-five years or so, and yet I can remember vividly every word of it. Well, almost.
‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
(Italo Calvino: Why Read the Classics?)
It’s called The Power and the Glory, and the title is a clear reference to the last line of the Lord’s Prayer. An interesting title because you can read it in more than one way: the spiritual power of the church versus the earthly power of the government, the power of faith and of political convictions, the glory of martyrdom…
The Last Priest on the Run
My edition is a Penguin paperback, and on the cover it features a bald, bearded, barefooted old man who stands awkwardly facing a fat stereotype of a Mexican (wearing a huge sombrero with the tip of his curling moustache just visible), pointing a revolver. A perfect circle of orange-tinted sun provides the backdrop. I’m not entirely convinced by this cover, but it does evoke heat, violence and Mexico.
The back cover catches your eye and attention with “The last priest is on the run” in big bold letters on top – this is about as commercial as Penguin ever gets. It makes for a fair summary: set in Mexico during a time of the persecution of the Catholic Church, The Power and the Glory is the tale of a priest on the run from the police.
Heat, thunderstorms, rocky paths over the mountains and crumbling village huts. A provincial capital, a river and a boat, mule tracks, a route to escape. Poverty, corruption, misery, superstition, loyalty and betrayal. A backward province of Mexico in turmoil.
A Stalinist governor mounting an anti-clerical campaign with the aid of his paramilitary organisation, the Red Shirts and the police.
The Persecution of the Church in Tabasco The Governor of the Mexican province of Tabasco in the late 1920s and the early 1930s was Tomás Garrido Canabal, a 'radical socialist'. During his tenure, among other things Garrido granted votes for women, extended general education and introduced a ban on alcohol. He also founded a paramilitary group known as the Red Shirts. Garrido, however, is best known for his anti-clerical measures which included the closure of all churches, forcing the priests to marry, the public burning of religious images and forbidding the use of the cross on tombs. Priests who refused to marry or continued to work underground risked their life. Some were assassinated by the Red Shirts, others arrested by the police.
The Sinner & the Saint
The Whisky Priest
The priest is a miserable sinner, a disgrace to his office; in ordinary circumstances he would have been defrocked years ago. But while all other priests fled or capitulated under government pressure, he remained in office. To celebrate mass is an offence punished by death and yet he will celebrate mass. You could not imagine a more unlikely candidate to play the hero… but the priest is forced into the role by his compassion. Being the last priest in this godforsaken province and Catholic dogma being what it is, he can’t in conscience refuse the sacraments to his miserable flock.
He began the Consecration of the Wine – in a chipped cup. That was one more surrender – for two years he had carried a chalice around with him; once it would have cost him his life, if the police officer who opened his case had not been a Catholic. It may well have cost the officer his life, if anybody discovered the evasion – he didn’t know; you went round making God knew what martyrs – in Concepción or elsewhere – when you yourself were without grace enough to die.
The police lieutenant whose job is to hunt the priest down is almost as saint-like in his idealism and asceticism as the priest is a despicable sinner. The lieutenant takes pride in his office, he has no vices, he has a conscience and he has a mission. He too is driven by compassion – but a compassion born of hatred and hurt, a pure, relentless and inhuman compassion.
Like that of the Inquisition.
(If you’ve ever known any communists,
this doesn’t surprise you.)
He stood with his hand on his holster and watched the brown intent patient eyes: it was for these he was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth – a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they chose. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes… He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.
Catholics vs Communists
Catholics and Communists – the arch enemies. Believers versus atheists. Two ideas, two ways of making sense of the world that are not only incompatible but mutually exclusive. Or are they? For all their ideological differences, the Church and the Party in fact share a highly idealistic outlook, a fondness for martyrdom and the sad belief that the end justifies the means. They share a terrible love for mankind that believes that any price is worth paying (although the person paying the price seldom has a say in it): that it’s worth burning a man alive to save his eternal soul, that a just society can be built on top of the corpses of the dissenters.
‘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.’
In the end, the sinful priest raises to unexpected heights by merely doing his – not very good – best in performing his office. At the same time the lieutenant sinks to barbarism, negating his noble purpose. With the best intentions.
Which one is the sinner then, and which one is the saint? Or are they just human? At some point in the novel both are forced to conclude that the other is a ‘good man’.
Not that this changes anything at the end.
You might also like: ⇒ Greene's Power and Glory was Story, Not Faith (The Guardian) ⇒ A doctoral thesis on Garrido's rule in Tabasco (University of Massachusetts) ⇒ Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene