Is it coincidence, a subconscious at work or simply a symptom of the modern world? But a seemingly random selection of novels return me again and again to the faith vs atheism debate and last month’s book group choice felt like climbing to the top of that particular mountain.
Graham Greene’s widely-acclaimed masterpiece, The Power and The Glory, is set in the Mexico of the 1930’s – a time when the Catholic church was viciously persecuted by an atheistic government. This seems, these days, to be a little known facet of history – of the 15 book group members, noone knew of it before reading the novel.
At the time of Greene’s novel the catholic clergy have fled, been forced to marry, or executed. Only one priest remains – he has no name as befits his symbolic status. Yet he’s also individual, a deeply flawed and extremely unsaintly priest. A “whisky” priest who has fathered, in a drunken moment, a daughter, at once the cause of his greatest joy and sorrow. To obtain salvation, he must repent. But how can he repent, when his sin has produced the greatest love of his life? Not that he spends much time with her. He is on the run and has been for eight years. Yet, while he can escape, he chooses not to. Because the people need him – for confession, to administer the sacraments. There is no doubting the sincerity of his belief, the seriousness with which he takes his vocation. Time and again, instead of making his escape, he turns around to administer to the spiritual need of a fellow human being. The analogy with Jesus Christ is clear. “No greater love hath a man that he lay down his own life in behalf of another” Yet the whisky priest is in a state of mortal sin and, if he is to die a saint, he must die in a state of grace ….
New Testament analogies appear throughout. Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Judas and Barabbas figures all make their appearance. The Judas mestizo figure is particularly unpleasant. The lieutenant, the atheistic counterpart of the priest, is also finely drawn. He is acting according to his principles – wanting to rid his country of the church, which luxuriates in its own glory, never providing for the physical welfare of the starving masses. Yet, while his motives may be sincere, he too is imperfect. His zeal leads to impatience and frustration at the lack of cooperation from the populace. This eventually leads him to murder. The lesson worldly power corrupts?
The complexity of the characterisation, the paradoxical nature of the proponents on both sides of the religious divide, unforgettable key scenes (black comedy while wine purchasing, the world in microcosm in the prison cell, the half-world or limbo of the deserted village, the final ideological showdown between priest and atheist), and the irony inherent in the history of the traditional saint are all elements that showcase the skills of a great author.
As a whole, though, this was not an entirely pleasurable reading experience. As the priest progressed in circles through the countryside, the narrative pull was slow and agonising and repetitive. Absolutely intentional. As hard on the reader as on the priest? And I was relieved to reach the end. But thinking about the novel is an entirely different experience – there is much to dissect and analyse. Layers and layers of paradox to tease out, discuss and debate. The similarities of the two main characters. The positives and negatives of alcohol. And the title …. where is the power and the glory in this novel? Determine that and you’ve understood the heart of the matter.
Group rating: 1/2