Book #36: The Power And The Glory
Some plotlines are just built to succeed.
Look at The Power and the Glory, for example. A Catholic priest on the run from the Mexican government? I’m sold. Who wouldn’t want to read about that?
It’s one thing, though, to have a nice setup, and it’s another thing entirely to follow through on that setup with superb execution. And that’s exactly what Graham Greene does with this novel.
If you follow 101 Books on a daily basis, you already know the basics of the story. Set in 1930s Mexico, the Mexican government is out to shut down the Catholic church within their borders.
Many priests get the heck out of dodge, but the unnamed protagonist—only known as “the priest”—hangs around. But don’t mistake him for a selfless martyr. Modern-day pedophiliac priests excluded, this guy has issues unfamiliar to many men of the cloth. At least, presumably.
He’s an alcoholic, hard up for wine, who has fathered a young girl as a result of a few moments of passion. As he runs from desolate village to desolate village, mechanically performing his duties as a priest—baptisms, confessions, mass—he slowly unravels and grows tired of running from both the authorities and his faith.
They had a word for his kind–a whisky priest, but every failure dropped out of sight and mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret–the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.
His counterpart, the nameless lieutenant, is a man of reason and logic. He doesn’t believe in God and despises the priest, at least at first. But he grows relatively fond of the priest toward the end of the story, though that doesn’t stop him from the pursuit.
It’s a classic cat-and-mouse game with a lot of spiritual overtones. The beauty of the novel, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is in the broad grey area of faith that Graham Greene plays in.
The priest is fully aware of what he labels as his “mortal sin.” He seems prepared to face eternal damnation. But in the middle of all that, he shows genuine love for his daughter, though she reminds him of sin. “What was the good of confession when you loved the result of your crime?” he asks.
Without spoiling too much plot for you, I’ll just say that a Judas figure appears in the novel. This person eventually is the undoing of the priest. It’s no surprise, as you’re waiting for his ultimate demise throughout the novel. Greene makes that apparent.
It’s not a matter of if the priest is going to get caught. It’s just a matter of when he will get caught, and what’s going to happen to him once he’s in the snares of the Mexican authorities.
From a writing standpoint, I love the way Greene presents the dialogue in this novel. It’s so casual and truly conversational—it’s the antithesis to the dialogue in, say, a William Gibson novel.
The dialogue flows so well in and out of the narrative and just makes so much sense. Every word has a purpose. Just one small example to follow, but it’s one of my favorite exchanges:
The lieutenant said in a tone of fury: “Well, you’re going to be a martyr—you’ve got that satisfaction.”
[The priest responding] “Oh, no. Martyrs are not like me. They don’t think all the time—if I had drunk more brandy I shouldn’t be so afraid.”
At less than 150 pages, The Power and The Glory does not waste any space. Greene makes the story count.
Ultimately, you’ll ask yourself questions like these while reading this novel: Will the priest ultimately find redemption? What is Greene saying about the Catholic Church (the last scene might tip you off on this)? Why doesn’t the priest leave the country when he has the opportunity?
Apparently, when The Power and the Glory came out, the novel was controversial because of its depiction of the Catholic Church—a lot of Catholics hated it. In the years since, I guess priests in the Church have created enough of their own controversy for church peeps to worry about literature.
I’m not sure why Catholics opposed the novel so much. I didn’t read it as a condemnation of an entire group of people but rather as a portrayal of one man’s struggles. I’m always of the opinion that one person’s actions don’t define the group as a whole.
In all, this is a brilliant book. I’m hard pressed to say that I’ve read a better spiritually-themed novel than The Power and the Glory. No doubt, this one will crack the top 10 in my totally subjectively and unbelievably pointless rankings.
The Opening Line: “Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust.”
The Meaning: The title refers to the doxology at the end of The Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, now and forever, amen.” In light of the priest’s actions, is the title supposed to be ironic? Or does it somehow hint to ultimate redemption? A lot to chew on with this title.
Highlights: Instead of providing you with adjective overload, I’ll just say all of the following is spectacular: the story, the characters, the dialogue, the writing, the first chapter, the last chapter, all the chapters in between.
Lowlights: I’m hard-pressed to find a lowlight for this novel. The only thing I can really say is that The Power and the Glory is one of those delightfully short novels that tease you. The story is so strong, so well written, that you want to read more, but then it’s over. But I guess that’s not really a bad thing.
Memorable Line: “Hate is a lack of imagination.” -The Unnamed Priest
Final Thoughts: I’ll echo some of my previous comments to close. If you have an inclination to enjoy spiritual/religion/Christian-themed novels, you can’t pass this book up. You’ll read it in a couple of days, and Greene will leave you wanting more. It doesn’t get much better than a priest on the run.
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