Book Review: The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

On Monday I finished reading Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.  It is Graham’s masterpiece, the story of a nameless priest that is hunted by socialist “red shirts” after Catholicism is outlawed in Mexico during the 1930s.

In the state of Tabasco,  all the priests have either been shot or forced to marry.  Only one nameless “whiskey priest” has escaped — and he is the worst of the priests to survive.  He is a drunkard, an adulterer, and a coward.  He is not even sure why he is running: the only thing he is sure of is that he does not want to be shot, because he does not want to feel any pain.  As the priest is chased from one part of the state to another, he constantly encounters poor villagers in need of his help.  They need a priest to hear their confessions, to baptize their children, and administer their last rights.  In each case, the priest reluctantly accepts this mantel (though often for a fee); all the while, however, he laments that there are no priests left to hear his own confession, absolve him, and, ultimately, administer his own last rights.  Finally, the police close in on the priests with the aid of Greene’s eeriest character, a fast-talking and poor half-caste that is willing to see the priest murdered in order to collect the award for his capture.  You can probably guess how the novel ends from there.

Greene does a wonderful  job describing the rugged landscape and desperate inhabitants of Tabasco.  And his hunted priest is a terrifically conflicted character, as is the ghoulish half-caste.  The narration is a bit long and purple — nothing like the straight-forward style of the only other Greene novel I’ve read, A Burnt-Out Case — but it complements the story well.

The only aspect of the book I disliked is very personal and subjective — I found it too Catholic.  The priest pines away about the mystery of the host, poor peasants lament that their dead children were never baptized, and the priest worries that no one will at last absolve him of his mortal sin.  Their existential crises overshadow the actual crises of their daily lives: poverty, persecution, and death.  At times, it seems that the problem is not so much that a child has died, but that it did so before being baptized.  And at another point, the priests almost justifies keeping the villagers in poverty, since it will improve their chances of reaching heaven.

If you’re a believer in Catholic dogma, you’ll probably like The Power and the Glory.  And even if you don’t believe in dogma, you’ll still enjoy the book.  But you’ll likely sit back in slack-jawed wonder like me and ask: wouldn’t it be better to feed the children rather than bless their corpses?

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