I suppose I could count this as a classic, or does Greene have to wait another hundred years or so before he qualifies? A question for greater–and more interested–minds. The Power and the Glory–I wonder I haven’t gotten to it before, having admired and read so much of Graham, taught Brighton Rock for years. But somehow not till now.
One thing you have to always remember about Greene–he’s Catholic as they come. Not always in the most orthodox ways, but matters of damnation, redemption, salvation, and sin suffuse every page of his writing. This may not be so evident in some titles such as The Quiet American or A Burnt-Out Case, but with a banner like The Power and the Glory, you know you’re going to get a hundred per cent.
We’re in Mexico in some early 20th century year. It doesn’t really matter so much. The time and place is a vessel for the working out of an age-old conflict between church and state and saint and sinner.
There’s been a revolution. All the priests–save one–have been shot or forced to renounce their vows, all the churches closed. That one last priest is dangerous, even more dangerous than a yankee murderer the authorities seek to round up before the rains make the roads impassable. Thing is, this priest is a sorry excuse for a cleric. A sorry excuse for a man, really. He’s pretty much an alcoholic. He has a daughter. Not that he lives with or around her or her mother. He was once a plump and happy head of a prosperous parish with visions of advancement in the hierarchy. Now he sees that was all pride. He also sees that he’s about to succumb to despair. Quite the sinner. He wants a confessor, but there’s no one left. He knows he’s unworthy to dispense communion or hear confessions, but people keep insisting. Then they get rid of him because pursuing soldiers will kill them for sheltering him. Many are the sins of cowardice and depravity he commits in order to save his skin. Many are the victims sacrificed to keep him alive.
In the hands of another writer, this might become a tale of a deluded people victimizing themselves to save an illusion of a nonexistent diety. But these people have no delusions. They know he’s a bad priest. They know every ugly thing about him. They know that God works through the weak and the despised, that it’s the earthly powerful who are deluded if they believe they can crush this spirit merely be destroying come buildings and discrediting some representatives of what is, after all, a distinctly human institution. Or something like that. Like Everett, you could spend a good many years exploring Greene, and it would be a rewarding and wonderful task. As it is, I’m satisfied to think that the true power and glory resides elsewhere than in thrones and robes and grand displays: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” saith Ozymandias. I’m with Shelley.