The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene reviewed by Mike Foster, 2004; revised 2016.
Graham Greene’s best novel takes place in a Catholic Hell: Mexico in the 1930’s. Catholicism is illegal. Alcohol is prohibited, especially wine, that most dangerous drink, capable of consecration. Cathedrals have been torn down, replaced with playgrounds where no children play. Priests are hunted down by the army. Some renounce their vows and marry, becoming henpecked laughingstocks mocked by little boys. Otherwise, they face the firing squad. Finally, only one is left.
The Power and the Glory grew out of a trip to Mexico Greene took in the winter of 1937-38 for the purpose of writing about the post-revolution religious persecution then in its final stages. A spare, stark and suspenseful tale of crime and punishment, flight and pursuit, it features two never-named protagonists, the ‘whisky priest’ who risks his life to bring the sacraments to the faithful and the lieutenant who pursues him.
The power of the title is perhaps personified in the lieutenant, the agent of the totalitarian state’s ruthless quest for domination.
The glory is incarnated in the priest, or so the reader longs to say. But Greene is too subtle a writer to reduce this tale to such a simple sum of hopeful hagiography. The ‘whisky priest’ is a little man in every sense, with a nervous giggle and an illegitimate daughter from a drunken fornication years before. He is riddled with doubts, but he doubts not his own unworthiness. He thinks he is a very bad priest. He may be right.
On the other hand, the lieutenant is solid with certitude. With the deadly devotion of the true believer, he tracks down his quarry, mistakenly sets him free, then, with the help of a half-caste Judas, catches him again.
The priest, for his part, seems to have escaped his deadly fate, rather like the Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. But he returns, called back to try to save a soul that does not wish to be saved.
The cold terror of the plot contrasts with the “blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust” of its setting. As in The Heart of the Matter, his other masterpiece, Greene writes of heat and humidity so well that the climate almost becomes a character. The sullen buzzards of the first paragraph hover throughout. The carrion they hope to pick is the body of Christ, the wayward, forbidden Church of the poor Indians the priest strives to serve.
Catholic scholar Dr. Adam Schwartz writes that this book continues “the debate between political and religious belief. Greene distrusted synoptic ideologies of all kinds, thinking they did not account for human evil sufficiently, whereas Catholicism provided a belief system rooted in charity that remained objectively true and good even when its representatives are flawed. Another way of thinking about it is Augustine’s two cities. The lieutenant represents the City of Man and the priest the City of God. They are alike in their devotion to a teleology, but the lieutenant’s is premised on imperfect human love that can quickly become cruel when its designs are frustrated, whereas the priest’s is premised on the perfect love of God, which can providentially bring salvation out of sinners.”In their penultimate colloquy, the priest tells the lieutenant:“ ‘But I’m not a saint,’ the priest said. ‘I’m not even a brave man.’ He looked apprehensively up: light was coming back: the candle was no longer necessary. It would soon be clear enough to start the long journey back. He felt a desire to go on talking, to delay even by a few minutes the decision to start. He said: ‘That’s another difference between us. It’s no good working for your end unless you’re a good man yourself. And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have the old starvation, beating, get-rich-anyhow. But it doesn’t matter so much my being a coward—and all the rest. I can put God in a man’s mouth just the same—and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference if every priest in the Church was like me.’ ”The Power and the Glory turns out to be much better than this reviewer had remembered. The wryly drawn minor characters are succinct and solid. The sharp taste of forbidden brandy barely cuts the dry, sterile dust of the churchless state. The suspense strangles, then eases its grip. Sinners and saints mingle and blur—which is which? who? how?– until finally…Greene wrote: “This book has given me more satisfaction than any other I have written,” he wrote in a new introduction to this novel written 22 years after its original publication in 1940. He added, “That is not saying much.”Rather like his whisky priest, Greene is too hard on himself. Rather like his lieutenant, he should finally temper justice with mercy. This short novel stumbles, on weary feet, through doom to salvation. It is a harsh and dreadful love story that is, in the end, both powerful and glorious.