Saturday, February 24, 2007

book of books - The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene does something rather clever having a main character that is nameless who grows throughout the book to represent something bigger than himself. In the end he is not the martyr but the cause he believes in is. Although this book came in for some flak because it has a priest who more than likes a tipple and has a daughter, it shows that even a priest is capable of going on a spiritual journey. The destination of his journey is not just death but enlightenment with him realising that to die for his faith is his purpose and the one last way to wipe away his sins.

Plot summary
Based in Mexico against a backdrop of persecution against the Catholic Church a priest is hunted down by a lieutenant who makes it his job to catch him and bring him to justice. In parallel there is an American gangster on the loose and the authorities set out to get him as well. The priest wanders through communities he knows but is eventually shunned because the police are taking hostages and shooting them unless they tell them where the priest is. After encountering a Judas figure who plans to drop the priest in it for the reward the priest lies low but his need for alcohol lands him in trouble and he is caught with a bottle of brandy and put in prison where he confesses who he is but the people protect him and in a way he finds heaven in hell. He then heads for the border and after finding a victim of the American gangster gets across to safety but the Judas comes looking for him and drags him back across the border to give last rights to the dying American and then the police capture him. He is sentenced to death and shot but that same evening another priest arrives.

Is it well written?
What you start to appreciate with Greene is that although the plot can sometimes become obvious there is such a depth to his characters and description of locations you end up wishing that it would all last longer. Both the priest and the lieutenant chasing after him are unnamed and both are united by a passion and then resignation that they have to follow what they believe in. There are lots of subtle gearshifts that keep you guessing quite what will happen but you always know that the only way the whiskey priest can find salvation and peace is at the end of a gun. Likewise Greene leaves you with a sense that no matter how hard the authorities try they will never succeed in getting rid of the priests.

Should it be read?
A few years ago Time listed this among its top 100 books and the reason is because partly the controversy it caused, with the Catholic Church understandably frowning on the depiction of a priest with a daughter and a drink problem. But it is also on that list because of the writing and although I have never been to Mexico you can start to appreciate the villages and the landscape as a result of Greene’s prose. The other slight problem for this book is that along with The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair and to some extent Brighton Rock this gets lumped together with those as a ‘catholic’ novel and while that is true it does deserve to stand alone as a work and it could be read without reference to those other books.

A whiskey priest breaking all the rules discovers that death is its own reward and those who kill him face a struggle they will ultimately lose to stamp out a religion

Version read – Vintage Classics paperback

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