The Power and the Glory, first published fifty years ago in a modest English edition of 3,500 copies, is generally agreed to be Graham Greene’s masterpiece, the book of his held highest in popular as well as critical esteem. Based upon less than two months spent in Mexico in March and April of 1938, including five weeks of grueling, solitary travel in the southern provinces of Tabasco and Chiapas, the novel is Greene’s least English, containing only a few minor English characters. Perhaps it succeeds so resoundingly because there is something un-English about the Roman Catholicism which infuses, with its Manichaean darkness and tortured literalism, his most ambitious fiction.
The three novels (as opposed to “entertainments”) composed before and after The Power and the Glory—Brighton Rock (1938), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951)—all have claims to greatness; they are as intense and penetrating and disturbing as an inquisitor’s gaze. After his modest start as a novelist under the influence of Joseph Conrad and John Buchan, Greene’s masterly facility at concocting thriller plots and his rather blithely morbid sensibility had come together, at a high level of intelligence and passion, with the strict terms of an inner religious debate that had not yet wearied him. Yet the Roman Catholicism, in these three novels, has something faintly stuck-on about it—there is a dreamlike feeling of stretch, of contortion. This murderous teen-age gang leader with his bitter belief in hell and his habit of quoting choirboy Latin to himself, this mild-mannered colonial policeman pulled by a terrible pity into the sure damnation of suicide, and this blithely unfaithful housewife drawn by a happenstance baptism of which she is unaware into a sainthood that works posthumous miracles—these are moral grotesques, shaped in some other world; they refuse to attach to the world around them, the so sharply and expertly evoked milieus of Brighton, British West Africa, London.
In contrast, The Power and the Glory‘s nameless whisky priest blends seamlessly with his tropical, crooked, anticlerical Mexico. Roman Catholicism is intrinsic to the character and terrain both; Greene’s imaginative immersion in both is triumphant. A Mexican priest in 1978 told Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry: “As a Mexican I travel in those regions. The first three paragraphs, where he gives you camera shots of the place, why it is astounding. You are in the place.” In 1960, a Catholic teacher in California wrote Greene:
One day I gave The Power and the Glory to…a native of Mexico who had lived through the worst persecutions…. She confessed that your descriptions were so vivid, your priest so real, that she found herself praying for him at Mass. I understand how she felt. Last year, on a trip through Mexico. I found myself peering into mud huts, through village streets, and across impassible mountain ranges, half-believing that I would glimpse a dim figure stumbling in the rain on his way …
Copyright © 1990 by John Updike.