There are times when you're glad that you haven't read every word by one of your favorite writers. That's the case for me with The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene. This is a novel of awesome power and concision, and it is a foray into a world that Greene somehow understood after only two months exposure to it. That's the length of time he spent in post-Revolutionary Mexico before writing The Power and The Glory.
Many years later I lived in Mexico for three years and have visited it extensively. Somehow Greene "got" qualities Mexico possesses that are other-worldly even to this day.
The story is as follows: After the Mexican Revolution, the Catholic Church was hounded and reduced into a kind of phantom. The Church's vast land holdings, accumulated over centuries, and its omnipresent socio-political influence repelled the revolutionaries to such an extent that churches were burned, clerics forced to marry or face prison or death and they were not permitted to appear in public in their typical priestly garb.
Greene, a converted English catholic, tells the tale of a priest who is in semi-hiding from this persecution for eight years. He lets the story unfold on its own, in the process creating a fascinating central character who finds himself guilt-ridden, full of shame, and a sense of doom. He's a "whiskey priest," meaning he's an alcoholic. And in a moment of weakness and basic human nature during the chaotic transition to a secular society, he fathered a child.
Neither the mother of the child nor the child herself offers our priest any solace. It's dangerous to harbor him. A price has been put on his head. As a consequence a mestizo bounty-hunter, one of the slimiest characters in all of fiction, pursues him wherever he stumbles in the wilds of coastal Mexico (this is on the eastern coast). And at the same time a police lieutenant in the district where the priest is scrambling for safety makes it his business to capture and execute him, although not without misgivings.
Time and again the priest wishes he'd simply be caught. Ultimately he responds to a call of conscience that really is a trap, and he gets his wish.
The great fiction of Mexico, and this is one of the great fictions Mexico has spawned, tends to focus on its darkness and mystery, a merging of conquest, indigenous survival,and breathtaking landscape that sometimes verges on a horror to even contemplate. Books I'd list along with The Power and The Glory are The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes, Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo, and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I could go on. Mexico's greatest literary figure, Octavio Paz, wasn't a novelist, but as a poet and a critic, he was world-spanning, and yet Mexican to the core. His Labyrinths of Solitude is a masterpiece of critical writing that brings to life the unbelievable contradictions between Mexico and the United States. I happened to know both Paz and Fuentes. They were emblems of what Americans can't get through their heads: Mexico is an a poor country, sure, but it is also a country of high cosmopolitanism, and it possesses a heritage of extraordinary civilizations that is utterly "non-western."
Back to Greene: After his conversion to Catholicism as a young man, he struggled with it and its precepts. It consoled and condemned him. It elevated and crushed him. HIs priest draws on this, but this isn't Graham Greene in disguise. This is a weak, sometimes humorous, brutally honest, fatalistic, desperate man thrashing through a landscape of villages, settlements and towns where he often is discovered and sometimes, with no consequence, even admits to being who he is.
The intensity of this book, especially the ambivalent dialogue between the police lieutenant and priest toward the end, reminds me of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon. The fleshy vegetable physicality of its setting is Conradian. But this is Greene at the height of his powers, wasting no words, pushing conscience to its breaking point, and exploring the mystery and necessity of God.
One final point: Mexico and Turkey turned on their religious institutions at about the same time. In Mexico the Church still has its wings clipped; in Turkey it regained its footing over the last ten years. What's fascinating about the Mexican example is the notion that a society can get sick of its priests and keep them at bay even though they find their way through the back door and persist. The real case in point in today's world is whether something similar will occur in Egypt (and the tide may also be turning secular in Turkey.) People can still believe but not want to be governed, much less be exploited by, their clergy. The eradication of faith, as Greene implies at the end of his novel, isn't the question; it is ineradicable. The reallocation of power, separating it from glory, is the painful dilemma that can be and has been approached. The backlash against the church in post-Revolutionary Mexico was an awesome example of this.
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