Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Power and the Glory

Graham Greene The Power and the Glory (1940)
First recommended to me about a decade ago on the grounds of it being set in Mexico, I initially had some trouble with this one. I made several attempts to read it, but found it, at the time, too relentlessly depressing; and this surprised me because I'd always thought I liked Graham Greene. So I've come back to it a couple of years later and, for no reason I can identify, I find myself very much enjoying the thing, and appreciating it as having been written with a certain lightness of touch which maintains a general idea of optimism even as the narrative becomes relentlessly grim. I have no idea why I never noticed this before and must therefore unfortunately assume that I was once fairly stupid, or at least less perceptive than I have apparently become; unless it was just a case of right time, right place 'n' shit.

The Power & the Glory occurs during one of the darker passages of Mexican history, the forties during which the priesthood had been outlawed and were accordingly persecuted by populist rightist forces of the kind which manifested in Mexico as the Red Shirts, counterparts to Black, Brown and Blue Shirts found across the Atlantic. Our man, never formally identified, is a Catholic priest on the run from the authorities, whose flight and subsequent capture mirrors certain aspects of the life of Christ, albeit vaguely, and whose story serves to map Greene's impression of Mexico in the thirties at the lower end of the economic totem pole - the land where life is cheap and no line is clearly drawn.

The Chief said, 'You heard what he did in Houston. Got away with ten thousand dollars. Two G Men were shot.'

'G Men?'

'It's an honour - in a way - to deal with such people.' He slapped furiously out at a mosquito.

'A man like that,' the lieutenant said, 'does no real harm. A few men dead. We all have to die. The money - somebody has to spend it. We do more good when we catch one of these.'

It's a novel about faith, obviously, but one which, rather than boring us all shitless by trying to sell a product, picks up its subject in wolfen teeth and gives it a good fucking shake.

It infuriated him to think that there were still people in the state who believed in a loving and merciful God. There are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic too, and what he had experienced was vacancy - a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all. He knew.

Opposing forces are given an equal footing in this novel, and we can appreciate the position of those hunting our unnamed priest as well as we can appreciate the inevitability and poignancy of his martyrdom; and the equal footing is expressed as the rhetoric of differing moral standpoints, so it goes substantially deeper than merely appreciating that even bad guys love their mothers. Most impressive about this, is that Greene has essentially told a story with an affirmative - if not actually what you would call happy - ending, despite that it is the story of a man whose life is turned to shit and which gets progressively worse leading up to his eventual execution. It's a story in which the composition of our environment is not only subsidiary, but borders on irrelevant to our understanding of our environment.

I'm just glad that I got there in the end.

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