Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

Excuse me while I gush. I loved The Power and the Glory. I loved Graham Greene's combination of suspense and absurdity. I loved the balance of the human and the divine. I loved lines like:
Sometimes, instructing children in the old days, he had been asked by some black lozenge-eyed Indian child, 'What is God like?' and he would answer facilely with references to the father and the mother, or perhaps more ambitiously he would include brother and sister and try to give some idea of all loves and relationships combined in an immense and yet personal passion... But at the centre of his faith there always stood the convincing mystery--that we were made in God's image. God was the parent, but he was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge. Something resembling God dangled from the gibbet or went into odd attitudes before the bullets in a prison yard or contorted itself like a camel in the attitude of sex. He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God's image had thought out, and God's image shook now, up and down on the mule's back, with the yellow teeth sticking out over the lower lip, and God's image did its despairing act of rebellion with Maria in the hut among the rats. He said, 'Do you feel better now? Not so cold, eh? Or so hot?' and pressed his hand with a kind of driven tenderness upon the shoulders of God's image.

Greene is certainly not the first author to write this sort of line, or even the best, but what I love about The Power and the Glory is Greene's juxtaposition of Christian ideals with the ridiculousness and grime of his characters' lives. The unnamed "whisky priest" risks his life performing mass and giving the sacraments, but what he really wants is a drink. Luis' mother reads to him about saints and martyrs, but the only "holy men" she's seen for years have been the whisky priest and Padre José, who has denied his faith and married.

History: As I was reading, I wasn't sure if The Power and the Glory (originally titled Labyrinthine Ways) was based on real politics or a sort of Orwellian "possible future." Turns out, that the novel is based on Catholic persecution that Greene witnessed in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution. Goes to show how much I know about Mexican history.

What is the most intriguing to me is the Catholic Church's original response (though 14 years after publication) to Greene's novel. While not condemning the novel outright, officials considered it dangerously "paradoxical" and admonished Greene against writing more of the same. (I generally consider paradoxy a marker of Christianity: "He who would save his life must lose it..." and all that.) When Greene met with Pope Paul VI, however, the pope basically told him not to worry about it, some people just would be silly.

(Book cover image from here.)


  1. I love Greene, for pretty much all the reasons you give here. I hadn't heard about his meeting with Pope Paul VI, though ... what a great comment! But I think my favorite Greene is "The End of the Affair" -- a fictionalized account of Greene's own conversion experience.

  2. I'll have to read that one! I've been trying to find more, and I just got my hands on a copy of _The Quiet American_.