I read The Power and the Glory years ago. But there’s no glory in forgetting the books I read faster than the faces I meet. If pushed I might have known it was set in Mexico and I would have remembered the main character was a whisky priest, but not that he was the narrator. What stuck was a scene in which the whisky priest comes to a small village and one of the peons that come to meet him goes back to his family and friends and urges them to go to the priest for the sacrament of Confession because he’d travelled all that way and it would be a discourtesy not to. That’s not what happens in the book, but something of that truth remains.
I came to Greene’s book from a strange angle. I’d read about 100 pages of Neil Gaiman’s weighty and well-received book American Gods and knew I wouldn’t read any more, or finish the other 500-odd pages. Then I wondered what it reminded me of. I could have gone the Gothic-Dracula- route and ended up with a Stephen King surrogate, but Graham Greene sprung to mind.
If anybody ever says something like you never step into the same river twice, do me, and mankind a favour, and drown them. The Power and the Glory is about redemption, salvation even, but there are no heroes, just human beings with ordinary failings and some virtues that might not be virtues. The suffering of the Mexican people is evident. Poverty, endemic hunger and sickness march alongside the whisky priest and the choices he makes endangers everyone he meets. There is a narrative running alongside the hunt for the whisky priest and that is the hunt for a gringo, an American bank robber, armed and dangerous that is hiding out in the state, but for the lieutenant hunting both of them it is the priest that matters. One is only stealing money from banks, the other is a true subversive taking money from the poorest people and propagating false ideas that there is a god that cares about them. Neutered versions of the whisky priest such as Father Jose who have renounced their vocation and married are examples of moderation and the mockery of a man. Yet, he too, is offered redemption of sorts by the lieutenant when he offers him a chance to hear the confession of the whisky priest. The lieutenant is no Pontius Pilate figure, but an honourable man, who unknowingly, at one stage, gives the whisky priest money to buy food. And the half-caste with his gopher-like front teeth while closer to a Judas figure is no villain, as the whisky priest comes to realise. No heroes, no villains, just humans.
At the heart of the book is the believe in transubstantiation, quite a mouthful for most folk, a believe that the whisky priest is man that is able to bring god to earth and turn water into Christ’s blood and bread into Christ’s body. This believe is shown most clearly by the half-human Indians that walked fifty or more miles overnight, to kiss his hand and wait patiently for a miracle to happen. It is the Judas figure that springs the trap, with his story that the bank robber had picked up a child and used her as a human shield to escape from the police. But the police had shot through the child, because it was only an Indian, and wounded the bank robber, although not fatally. He was a Catholic, asking for the last rites of Confession, something the whisky priest had no right to deny him. But the whisky priest is not a prisoner, he can turn the other way, back to his old life of big meals and fawning older women kissing his hand.
One of the things that confused me reading the book now, rather than a younger version of me (with hair) was when the whisky priest returns to his old village, where he’s sure he’ll receive a warm welcome but doesn’t. The police have been shooting hostages from villages they believe have sheltered him and the villagers are anxious for him to leave. But he meets a child, with the devil in her eyes. A child that the priest recognises and admits that he’s committed a great sin. I immediately thought Graham Greene was somehow prophetic, over 50 years ago he recognised that priests were abusing kids and having sex with them. As we know now they were (and are). But the whisky priest’s big sin was to have a few minutes pleasure with a woman, a villager, whom he got pregnant. Ho-hum, hardly a revelation nowadays, but I guess back then it was a big thing. Shocking, in the way child abuse is. A man that humbly submits to his fate for the good of all, there’s a revolutionary idea that doesn’t feature much in politics or in life. Does it matter if there’s a god? Not really. What matters now is the zealots are on the march, hating everybody that is different. These are the guys that are winning hearts and minds and they don’t mind shooting through the bodies of Mexicans, Indians, or watching whoever washing up dead on beaches, as long as they are right. And they are far right, but far from right, god help us.