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The Inglorious Martyrdom

January 8, 2009
The Power and the Glory

The Power and the Glory

I am a believer in book déjà vu. You’re sitting down with a novel in your hands that you’re convinced you’ve read before. It could be a phrase or a paragraph or a character, but you have met in an earlier book. I had this experience reading The Power and the Glory. Although it wasn’t just a phrase or a paragraph or a character–it was the entire novel. Greene’s clipping tale of a renegade “whisky priest” felt almost exactly like Shusaku Endo’s Silence, except it was in Mexico and a few hundred years later.

Greene and Endo both latched onto this general principle: It is far more interesting to read about a bad priest than a good one. No one really wants to read a book about the pious. We’d much rather spend our time with a priest who’s an unfaithful alcoholic with an illegitimate child. And Greene’s anonymous priest is a great character. He stirs up all of the conflicting emotions that a great character is capable of igniting. As soon as we decide that he’s low and despicable and much better off being caught by the Mexican police, he redeems himself with a humble act of mercy, a small kindness, and we are squarely astonished by his humanity. For he is not really all that different from the rest of us. The whisky priest is occasionally devout, occasionally common, absolutely human.

Greene’s prose is excellent and precise. He likes to step away from the narration to dip into a few moments of introspection, passages that we aren’t entirely sure come from the narrator or from the priest himself. He does not provide us with many sensual details about his characters. They often only get a first name, if even that (sometimes they just get labels, like the protagonist, and his sneaky betrayer, the half-caste); we don’t know where they come from or what they’re doing. But they are plainly believable. Greene wants us to remember that this is not a fairy tale. At many points, it doesn’t even feel like a novel, so much as a well-written history book. But the story underneath is beautiful and enduring.

Greene reinforces the notion that faith is fragile, especially faith pursued by the authorities. People begin to cave when they are threatened; religion is renounced, the belief system crumbles. Martyrdom is perhaps not as glorious as we imagined. But through it all, the victory of the church–of the prevailing endurance of belief in something greater than a dirty, poor life–is evident. And Greene’s simple, well-wrought characters are eager to support this conception.

In one of my favorite passages, the whisky priest has finally been caught and he is being interrogated by the police. The officer is mocking the priest’s tired religion and his continual evocation of Christian principles like love and salvation; he reminds the priest that, after they’re finished, Christianity will only be a faded remnant of the past; God’s love is, after all, only a paltry idea reinforced by crooked clergymen. This is how the priest answers him:

“Oh,” the priest said, “that’s another thing altogether—God is love. I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste of it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love. It might even look like hate. It would be enough to scare us—God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark. Oh, a man like me would run a mile to get away if he felt that love around.”

While it is difficult for me to imagine a world where religious intolerance to this degree existed, Greene makes it possible with his lasting prose and his breathing characters.

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