I haven’t yet decided if reading this novel at the height of summer in the Philippines was supremely prescient or foolhardy. The first few chapters are alienating in their bleakness, approximating the aridity of a soul so far from grace. Graham Greene’s prose sucks out all the oxygen from the story, leaving a nihilistic parable suspended in time.
The Power and the Glory is ostensibly grounded in a historical event. Set in the 1930’s, it dramatizes the period when a wave of revolutionary fervor led to the persecution of Mexico’s Catholic Church. Priests are hunted down–either forced to renounce their vows through marriage or executed. Graham Greene creates what is a essentially a man-on-the-run thriller here, as an unnamed character called “the Whisky Priest” struggles to elude capture in the countryside of rural Mexico. He is chased by a bloodhound simply known as “the Lieutenant,” whose desire to annihilate the old, corrupt ways propels this all-consuming vendetta.
As characters go, the Whisky Priest is one of the most affecting characters I have ever encountered. Morally weak and changeable, he is hardly the example of noble martyrdom. In the time of plenty, he took advantage of people’s veneration by indulging in drink and other proclivities, even fathering a child. Cosmic payback is upon him, however, because in a cruel trick of fate, he is now the last symbol of his religion for miles around. Mortal danger doesn’t entirely cure him of his vices, yet he is unable to leave the people behind, so thirsty are they for rituals he had once taken for granted: confession, Communion, Mass.
Graham Greene seems to be one of those writers who are entirely consumed by overarching themes, so much so that his characters’ specificity wilts in the face of them. The Whisky Priest is not simply an alcoholic clergyman with an illegitimate child, he is the embodiment of every human frailty experienced in the 2,000 years of Christendom. Which goes to show what great a writer he is that despite this absolutism–perhaps even because of it–The Power and Glory is wonderfully compassionate, nuanced, and dare I say, ecumenical.
A Catholic through conversion, Greene had once answered the question of his choice by saying, “I had to find a religion to measure my evil against.” Redemption, therefore, lies not in its majesty but in the capacity for self-negation, needing the basest of circumstances to show its ultimate strength.
Reading this was tough going, and even during the most dramatic sequences I feel that some of the profoundness in the Whisky Priest’s musings became lost on me. Greene never makes things easy for the reader, from beginning in medias res to refusing the recognizable categorizations of Virtue and Sin. Definitely a lot of things to unpack here, but so worth it.