Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review of "The Power & the Glory" by Graham Greene

What if you knew before going into a book that it would try but fail to change your opinion?  Would you still be interested in reading, knowing it would add nothing to a topic you’ve mulled to the point of boredom?  Such is the mindset I went about reading Graham Greene’s The Power & the Glory and its dialectic on Catholicism.  Surprisingly, while my beliefs remain agnostic, I finished the book having an increased respect for not only Greene’s qualities as a writer, but for being able to realistically express the human side of a religion that is ordinarily so wrapped up in symbolism and ritual.  In our current age's mirage of post-deconstructive relativity theory-ism, having readers gain respect for a perspective they oppose is more difficult than exposing them to a new viewpoint on life. 

Set in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930’s during a purge of clerics, The Power & the Glory tells the story of a “whiskey priest,” - a Father on the run from authorities.  As morally conflicted as any character in literature could be, the whiskey priest fights to stay one step ahead of the law, bestowing hope and faith on the population, all the while attempting to deal with a deep-rooted addiction to alcohol and the internal discord of failing the church for personal interest.   Throughout his attempts to escape Tabasco into more tolerant lands, the whiskey priest encounters a variety of souls who serve to cast his own plight into a brighter light.  There is the fallen priest who chose to give up his vocation rather than face the death penalty; the homeless man who the whiskey-priest thinks is Judas; and the stoic lieutenant who tracks our hero the length of the novel.  All these viewpoints provide a more than adequate sounding board for Greene’s Catholic agenda.  As such, the guilt and suffering of a pious man have perhaps never been portrayed so well. 

Despite strong characterization and the willingness to openly challenge not only the secular world but also the world of Catholicism, the point at which Green shows his true strengths as a writer is in the novel’s structure.  The opening chapters devoted to describing the everyday lives of a handful of seemingly random characters, one loses track of them as the narrative is taken over by the story of the whiskey priest and his flight from the authorities.  However, at the end of the novel these characters return, acting as a literary foil to the situation the priest ultimately finds himself in.  The contrast evoked takes the novel’s denouement to the heights of literary achievement.  Catholic or not, the reader cannot help but be reminded about the wider context of life so easily forgotten in a day-to-day routine.  For accomplishing the difficult task of including yet transcending religion, Greene deserves full praise. 

Though not many writers could pull this off, the novel is nonetheless not without its flaws.  Despite that Greene uses the real world political situation of Tabasco as a backdrop, there is a notable lack of Mexician culture; the story could have occurred in any Western country.  To be fair, Greene obviously intended dialogue and characterization to take center stage, but what little interaction does occur with the local people and environment lacks detail in convincing enough fashion to make the reader believe the story is being told in Mexico.  Likewise, the actions of the priest are not ideologically consistent.  There is a minor scene where the priest could have invoked doctrine and prevented a person from getting hurt.  This, however, contradicts the priest’s choice at the end of the novel when facing a similar situation.  But I suppose such paradoxes are the hallmark of any organized religion.

In the end, Greene’s account of Catholicism in the modern world is something that anyone who enjoys a well written book could read.  Me - the agnostic - was moved by novel, thus it must be the characterization and individual nature of the whiskey-priest’s plight which the believer and non-believer alike can relate to.  No matter whether you are religious or not, The Power & the Glory challenges the individual and society, making for good reading.

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