Tuesday 28 June 2011

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

"Hope was an instinct only the reasoning human mind could kill. An animal never knew despair." 

Curse you procrastination! Regretfully, I should have written a review soon after finishing this wonderful novel by my favorite author or at the very least, jotted down some notes because my poor memory is preventing me from writing anything substantial that would even remotely do The Power and the Glory justice. I plan on reading it again in the not too distant future in order to present a proper analysis of the dense complexities and religious theodicy of Graham's text. In comparison to the other three novels that I have read by Greene (The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, and A Burnt-out Case), The Power and the Glory was by far the most depressing, elusive, inscrutable and dare I say it, the least enjoyable reading experience of them all. I wonder if my initial reaction would have proven different if this happened to be the first novel that I have ever read by Graham? Nonetheless, having grown accustomed to his writing style and thematic concerns, I could not help but feel slightly underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, Graham is still in top form and this novel is easily better than most of the tripe written these days but it will require a much closer-reading to sufficiently comprehend and appreciate the elaborate tapestry of the intricate religious ideologies addressed in the novel. 

Certainly the most deeply religious of Greene's work that I have encountered thus far, the story involves an unnamed renegade Catholic "Whisky-priest" who is being hunted down by local authorities in Mexico for practicing the religion where anti-Catholic legislation is in full effect. Greene is prone to depicting characters struggling with their own morality and faith and in this novel, the whiskey-priest's dilemma is by far the most religiously complex.  The concept of grace along with striving to obtain salvation plague the priests conscious as he travels the severely destitute villages of Mexico to preach the gospel. These communities are plagued by starvation, disease and death. What kind of significant difference can the priest hope to make in the lives of these suffering individuals? He feels that he is nothing but a fraud because of past sins and yet, continues to carry out his religious duties. Overwhelmed with guilt, he even hopes to be caught but still continues to run and hide from the authorities, lead by a Lieutenant who is adamant to purge the country of Catholicism and establish a secular society. Greene could have portrayed the Priest and the Lieutenant as representing antithetical religious ideologies but he is far too intelligent and clever of an author to resort to black-and-white representations of religion -- moral ambiguity is a trademark aspect of Greene's writing. The priest is not the epitome of righteousness and nor is the Lieutenant the embodiment of unprecedented evil. Greene understands humanity with such clarity and his characters are never so unequivocal in their intentions; human beings are flawed and far too complex to be bogged down into rudimentary caricatures of morality. 

One of the main reasons why I find Graham Greene to be such an exceptional author is that he is a master of brevity,  his writing is entrancing in its lyrical beauty and profound wisdom concerning the human condition. I could quote his prose ad nauseum but here are just a few passages from this novel that I found to be particularly remarkable:

"It is one of the strange discoveries a man makes that life, however you lead it, contains moments of exhilaration: there are always comparisons which can be made with worse times:even in danger and misery the pendulum swings."

"How often the priest had heard the same confession--Man was so limited: he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died: the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater the glory lay around the death; it was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or civilization--it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt."  

"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."  
I may not necessarily agree with his religious ideologies and it would be fallacious to label his works as pure propaganda; he is far more interested in exploring the lingering doubt and contradictions towards the Catholic faith as opposed to strictly resorting to bludgeoning the reader to death with dull religious discourse. The Power and the Glory may not be the most "entertaining" of Greene's novels but it is superbly crafted (the convoluted narrative makes sense near the end) and presents such a genuine and empathetic portrayal of religious sensibilities: that tiny shred of doubt leads to bigger questions of searching for the truth to live a meaningful life. What is the answer? I'm under the impression that Greene is intent on highlighting the power and glory of "grace" as a possible resolution to achieve enlightenment. 

Read from June 19 to 21, 2011

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