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 to the border. There is no greater tribute possible to your creation of this character—he lives.
Greene’s identification with his anonymous hero—“a small man dressed in a shabby dark city suit, carrying a small attaché case”—burns away the educated upper-middle-class skepticism and ennui which shadow even the most ardently spiritual of his other novels. Mr. Tench, the dentist, and the complicated Fellows family are English, and may have been intended to play a bigger part than they do; as is, they exist marginally, like little figures introduced to give a landscape its grandeur. The abysses and heights of the whisky priest’s descent into darkness and simultaneous ascent into martyrdom so dominate the canvas that even his pursuer and ideological antagonist, the fanatically atheistic lieutenant, is rather crowded out, flattened to seem a mere foil. Only the extraordinary apparition of the mestizo, with his yellow fangs and wriggling exposed toe and fawning, clinging, inexorable treachery, exists in the same oversized realm of transcendent paradox as the dogged, doomed priest.
Edith, Sitwell wrote Greene in 1945 that he would have made a great priest. His conversion, in Nottingham at the age of twenty-two in 1926, was at the hands of a priest, Father Trollope, who, after his own conversion, had been—according to Greene’s memoir A Sort of Life—“driven further by some inner compulsion to the priesthood.” But Greene was in little such danger; he was converting in order to marry a Roman Catholic, and in any case, he wrote in 1938, “chastity would have been beyond my powers.” Yet his serious novels usually have a priest in them, portrayed as fallibly human but in his priestly function beyond reproach. In his second book of autobiography, Ways of Escape, Greene writes, “I think The Power and the Glory is the only novel I have written to a thesis…. I had always, even when I was a schoolboy, listened with impatience to the scandalous stories of tourists concerning the priests they had encountered in remote Latin villages (this priest had a mistress, another was constantly drunk), for I had been adequately taught in my Protestant history books what Catholics believed; I could distinguish even then between the man and the office.”
The distinction between sinful behavior and sacramental function is clear also to the debased priests of The Power and the Glory. Father José, compelled by the state and his cowardice to marry, remembers “the gift he had been given which nobody could take away. That was what made him worthy of damnation—the power he still had of turning the wafer into the flesh and blood of God.” The whisky priest can no longer find meaning in prayer but to him “the Host was different: to lay that between a dying man’s lips was to lay God.” Greene says of his hero what he might say of himself: “Curious pedantries moved him.”
In the unrelenting succession of harrowing scenes as the hunted man tries to keep performing his priestly offices, none is more harrowing, more grisly in its irony and corrosive earthy dialogue, than the episode wherein he must watch a trio of local lowlife, including the police chief, drink up a bottle of wine he had bought with his last pesos for sacramental purposes. But almost every stage of the priest’s ragged pilgrimage, between Mr. Tench’s two glimpses of him in the stultifying capital of the hellish state (Tabasco, but unnamed), grips us with sorrow and pity. Greene, as a reviewer, saw a lot of movies in the Thirties, and his scenes are abrupt, cinematic, built of brilliant, artfully lit images; the “big whitewashed building,” for instance, which the priest does not recognize as a church and mistakes for a barracks, at the end of Part II, and the mountaintop grove of tall, crazily leaning crosses “like trees that had been left to seed,” which marks the Indian cemetery and the boundary of the less intolerant, safe state (Chiapas, also unnamed).
The preceding climb, in the company of the Indian woman carrying her dead child on her back, is as grandly silent as a pageant in Eisenstein, and there is a touch of surreal Buñuel horror in the priest’s discovery, when he returns to the cemetery, of the dead child’s exposed body, with a lump of sugar in its mouth. In A Sort of Life, Greene, thinking back upon his many novels for “passages, even chapters, which gave me at the time I wrote them a sense of satisfaction,” named “the prison dialogue in The Power and the Glory,” and indeed this scene, in which the priest, at the nadir of his abasement and peril, sits up all night in a crowded dark cell listening to the varied voices—the disembodied souls—of the other inmates, is, in its depth, directness, and strange comedy, worthy of Dostoevsky, another problematical believer.
Greene’s conversion to Catholicism, as he describes it in A Sort of Life, was rather diffident. He was walking his dog past a church that “possessed for me a certain gloomy power because it represented the inconceivable and the incredible. Inside, there was a wooden box for inquiries and I dropped into it a note asking for instruction…. I had no intention of being received into the Church. For such a thing to happen I would need to be convinced of its truth and that was not even a remote possibility.” But, after a few sessions of vigorously arguing the case for atheism with Father Trollope, something happened: “I can only remember that in January 1926 I became convinced of the probable existence of something we call God, though I now dislike the word with all its anthropomorphic associations.” Early the next month, he made his first general confession, was baptized, and received. “I remember very clearly the nature of my emotion as I walked away from the Cathedral: there was no joy in it at all, only a sombre apprehension.” The entire swift surrender reminds us of another, which occurred a bit earlier during his four months of living alone in Nottingham and being terribly bored.
Once on my free day I walked over the hills to Chesterfield and found a dentist. I described to him the symptoms, which I knew well, of an abscess. He tapped a perfectly good tooth with his little mirror and I reacted in the correct way. “Better have it out,” he advised.
“Yes,” I said, “but with ether.”
A few minutes’ unconsciousness was like a holiday from the world. I had lost a good tooth, but the boredom was for the time being dispersed.
While still an Oxford undergraduate, he had repeatedly played Russian roulette, in search of a permanent holiday from the world. The world gets a grim report in his fiction. For Pinkie in Brighton Rock, “the world never moved: it lay there always, the ravaged and disputed territory between two eternities.” In The Power and the Glory, the priest, looking at the stars, cannot believe that “this world could shine with such brilliance: it would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship.” Looking at his illegitimate child, he sees that “the world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit.” In the prison cell, he reflects, “This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.” An ascetic, reckless, life-despising streak in Greene’s temperament characterized, among other precipitate ventures, his 1938 trip to Mexico.
He had been angling since 1936 for a way to travel on assignment to Mexico, to write about “the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.” The persecution had peaked a few years earlier, under President Calles, elected in 1924, and the infamous atheist governor of Tabasco, Garrido Canabal. Greene finally got his backing, from Longman’s in England and Viking in the United States, survived his trip, and produced his book, called The Lawless Roads in England and Another Country here. (Such transatlantic title-changes were once common; The Power and the Glory was first issued by Doubleday under what Greene called “the difficult and misleading title of The Labyrinthine Ways.”) Another Country still reads well, though episodic and in spots carelessly written. Greene has a charming way of tossing into its text passages from Trollope and Cobbett, as he was reading them on the move, and also accounts of his dreams. Many elements of the novel are easily recognizable: the geography, the vultures, the layout and torpor of Villahermosa, the amiably corrupt police chief, the officious village schoolteacher trying to replace the banished priest, the European finca whose proprietors bathe in the stream with nibbling fish, the lump of sugar, the fanged mestizo (encountered behind a typewriter in the village of Yajalon), and the germ of the whisky priest in several rumors, even to his drunken insistence on baptizing a son Brigitta. But it was all marvelously transposed and edited: the priest’s mule-riding flights from capture in the Tabasco-like state were based upon agonizingly long rides that Greene took in Chiapas, on the way to Las Casas, which his fictional priest never reaches. Had the air service between Yajalon and Las Casas not been cancelled by rain, his novel might have lacked its most memorable and Biblical mode of transportation.
This tone, too, is transformed; in Another Country Greene is very much the exasperated tourist, hating Mexican food, manners, hotels, rats, mosquitoes, mule rides, souvenirs, and ruins. He even inveighs against the “hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes.” In the novel, as it shows a Mexican moving among Mexicans, and these generally the most lowly and impoverished, all querulousness has vanished, swallowed by matters of life and death and beyond. There are hints of a redeeming mood even in Another Country: “What had exhausted me in Chiapas was simply physical exertion, unfriendliness, boredom; life among the dark groves of leaning crosses was at any rate concerned with eternal values.” The whisky priest, who before The Power and the Glory opens has been stripped of his livelihood and the flattery of the pious, in the course of the novel loses his attaché case and suit; he is stripped down to his eternal value, or valuelessness. Greene, at a low ebb in his Chiapas travels, took shelter in a roadside hut, “a storehouse for corn, but it contained what you seldom find in Mexico, the feel of human goodness.” The old man living there gave up his bed—“a dais of earth covered with a straw mat set against the mound of corn where the rats were burrowing”—to Greene, who wrote of the moment, “All that was left was an old man on the verge of starvation living in a hut with the rats, welcoming the strangers without a word of payment, gossiping gently in the dark. I felt myself back with the population of heaven.” Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Graham Greene’s sympathy with the poor in spirit, with the world’s underdogs, preceded his religious conversion and survives it, apparently: he doubted to Norman Sherry that he still believes in God and in A Sort of Life tells how “many of us abandon Confession and Communion to join the Foreign Legion of the Church and fight for a city of which we are no longer full citizens.” His religious faith always included a conviction that, as he put it in an essay on Eric Gill in. 1941, “Conservatism and Catholicism should be…impossible bedfellows.” In 1980, reflecting upon Mexico in Ways of Escape (where he describes how The Power and the Glory was written, back in London, in the afternoons, slowly, on Benzedrine, after mornings of racing through The Confidential Agent), Greene complains that the contemporary Mexican government is not leftwing enough, compared with Cuba’s. His sympathies have led him into a stout postwar anti-Americanism and a rather awkward pleading for the likes of Castro and Kim Philby. But the energy and grandeur of his finest novel derive from the same will toward compassion, an ideal communism even more Christian than Communist. Its unit is the individual, not any class. The priest sees in the dark prison cell that “When you visualised a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it.”
Copyright © 1990 by John Updike.
August 16, 1990