The Literate Man’s nation of followers has surely noticed that we’re well past due for the requisite Graham Greene post. Greene is not just a giant of twentieth-century fiction but he’s also one of our favorite authors. The Power and the Glory is Greene’s masterpiece and it’s long past time that we did a post on it. All of Greene’s works of fiction are highly recommended, but The Power and the Glory is Greene at his absolute best.
Set in the sweaty Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930’s, this story chronicles the tale of a renegade “whisky priest” on the run from the Federales during the government’s great purge to eradicate the Catholic Church in Mexico. As the priest flees from one hiding spot to another, from the jungle rivers and banana sheds to small mountain villages, he struggles with his own existence, begging to be caught and spare his co-conspirators, and himself, further suffering and hardship. Yet, at the same time, he's unable to surrender to the state and give up on his priestly calling and duty to God even as great suffering is inflicted upon his former parishioners for harboring him.
It’s hardly a simple theme, but juxtaposed against Greene’s concise and deliberate writing style, the reader is in no danger of being overwhelmed by existential elements. In fact, the simplicity of the writing and the characters involved allows Greene to distill these greater themes in much more compelling terms and the result is a powerful and moving novel. It’s also easy to see how he transitioned into screenplay writing as this novel, and many others of his, are composed of a series of powerful scenes stitched together to make a larger narrative
Like so many of Graham’s novels set in “developing countries” during the mid-twentieth century, The Power and the Glory offers a brilliant and vivid snapshot of a volatile place and time. Viet Nam (The Quiet American), Sierra Leone (The Heart of the Matter) and Haiti (The Comedians) are all turbulent places full of social upheaval and conflict. Tabasco in the 1930s is no different. And this setting is just as important to the story as the people and it’s instrumental to our understanding of his characters.
For Greene, the absolutes of good and evil and -even morality- are hardly black and white and he makes his living in the gray area of everyday life. His protagonists are neither good nor bad, and even his antagonists are acting on behalf of what they believe to be honorable intentions. But weakness in his characters thoughts and actions tend to distort their intent and produce regrettable results. It’s these moments of weakness that create the conflict that drives Greene’s writing, as he continually asks us: is it our frailties or our strengths that define us as humans?
A brilliant back-drop, compelling character struggle and the immense literary talents of a master of the craft make The Power and Glory one of our favorite novels of all time.