The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene (1940)

This place was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven. (p.125)

In 1938 Greene was commissioned by the publisher Longman to go to Mexico to report on the revolutionary government’s repression of the Church and anti-clerical pogroms. The trip produced the factual travel book, The Lawless Roads, published in 1939, and the novel The Power and The Glory, in 1940.

A worldview finds a home

God, Greene must have been thrilled to bits when he saw Mexico. In London or Brighton, in a sensible well-organised civilised and boring country, Greene’s bleakly pessimistic worldview combined with his fondness for an atmosphere of menace and fear often seem more than a bit ludicrous.

In revolutionary Mexico, on the other hand, the sense of life’s futility, its cheapness, squalor and poverty, along with a constant menace from the revolutionary authorities, streaked through with a melodramatic heroism of the repressed Catholic church – this is the world he had been looking for, had been expressing in fiction for a decade – and it actually existed!

I’ve argued that his previous books had been themes and worldviews in search of a plot which could justify them – the bitterness, the horror and the menace expressed by characters and narrator in his first half dozen or so novels never really being justified by the small-scale, petty and often silly plot structures.

Here, in the brutal, poverty-stricken, violent, repressive, godforsaken south of Mexico, he found the living embodiment of everything he imagined, everything he loathed and feared and hated and which his fiction revels in: life at its most squalidly cheap and nasty; a cast of vicious, pathetic, defeated human animals set against a pitiless and abandoned landscape.

The Power and The Glory is routinely described as Greene’s first great novel. I am arguing it is ‘great’ because he has finally found a subject which justifies his obsessions and the bleak, cold-eyed style he had developed to express them.

As a small example: in these early novels the characters often feel uniquely cursed, as if they carry a blight, an evil fate around with them, like Pinkie in Brighton Rock or D. in The Confidential Agent who, as I’ve noted in a post on that novel, repeatedly uses the word ‘infection’ and typhoid to refer to himself. But the whisky priest is finally a character who can really justify the solipsistic self-pity so many Greene characters feel, for the army starts taking hostages from the poor villages where he passes and shooting them if no-one will betray him.

Nobody would stop him, saying a woman was ill or a man dying. He was a sickness now. (p.64)

He alone carried a wound, as though a whole world had died. (p.68)

A virtuous man can almost cease to believe in Hell, but he carried Hell about with him… Evil ran like malaria in his veins. (p.176)

Plot

There is no plot. The unnamed whisky priest has been hiding for ten years (!) while his colleagues are either shot by the authorities or give in and marry, abandoning their vows. The army, led by the unnamed lieutenant, are after him but not very hard.

For most of the novel there is no sequence of events linked by meaningful interactions, or unfolding of a plot. It is not even a chase, more of a trudge or traipse or godforsaken stumble through the jungle and landscape of southern Mexico in which the priest has encounters with various people. He covers hundreds of miles from the banana port where he tangles with Mr Tench the dentist, to his home village of Concepcion where the peasants are desperate to get rid of him, to some place where he sees the child (Coral) he fathered illegitimately – thus, oooh, placing himself in a state of mortal sin – then crossing some river, getting latched onto by a probably criminal half-breed, then on to the capital where he buys wine only to see it drunk by idiots and gets thrown into a squalid prison cell stuffed with crims, then back to the mud village.

Maybe it’s intended as a kind of parody of the Stations of the Cross but it’s more like Waiting For Godot in that, at every one of his stopping points he loses a belonging: his missal, his smart clothes, his wine, finally the last scraps of writing he has. He staggers blindly scores of miles accompanied by an Indian woman he can’t communicate with, who’s carrying the corpse of her three year-old son, murdered by some Yankee gunshooter. Slowly, steadily the protagonist is humiliated and stripped of all dignity until he is reduced to a bestial level, sucking the moisture from his wet trousers, fighting with a crippled dog about a bone with some raw meat still on it.

The text is divided into four parts, the first and longest two describing his steady deterioration on the run. In part three there is an interlude: he stumbles over a civilised plantation run by two German Lutherans, where is is fed and rested and recuperates. He is given money and food and is actually on the mule which will take him north to the city in the next state, to safety and lights and civilisation, when the mestizo from earlier in the novel appears like an evil daemon to tell him the Yankee gunshooter is lying dying and has asked for confession. He knows it is a trap, but the whisky priest goes, nonetheless.

It is a trap – the Yankee is there but dies absurdly without giving confession or receiving the last rites. In every possible way Greene makes his priest a failure. The army lieutenant, who was lying in wait, takes him back to the capital, they have some pseudo-philosophical discussions, but then the priest is locked in a cell to drink the last of the brandy and cry with fear.

Part Four uses the same technique as the final part of A Gun For Sale, namely it’s a short round-up of the fate of all the minor characters in the text: which has the modishly distancing affect of showing that life goes on (in what Greene sees as its silly tawdry way): Captain and Mrs Fellows bicker about whether to go back to England; the unnamed peasant mother finishes reading the life of a young martyr to her impressionable children. The heart of this alienation or distancing technique, is that Mr Tench the dentist who we met on the first page, is doing dental work of the chief of police at the moment the whisky priest is executed, and we witness the execution through his eyes, as he looks down from the chief’s office into the courtyard.

And in the final paragraphs, late one night, to the house of the believing woman, arrives in the final sentences of the novel – another anonymous priest. The Church’s work goes on! Although I didn’t enjoy a lot of what went before, the sheer theatricality of these final passages and the boom boom ending give a rewarding sense of completeness.

Characters

Greene is skilled at creating vivid characters with deft pen portraits of their physical appearances.

The lieutenant walked in front of his men with an air of bitter distaste. He might have been chained to them unwillingly – perhaps the scar on his jaw was the relic of an escape. His gaiters were polished, and his pistol-holster: his buttons were all sewn on. He had a sharp crooked nose jutting out of a lean dancer’s face; his neatness gave an effect of inordinate ambition in the shabby city. (p20)

The Chief of Police came breezily in, a stout man with a pink fat face, dressed in white flannels with a wide-awake hat and a cartridge-belt and a big pistol clapping his thigh. He held a handkerchief to his mouth: he was in distrees. ‘Toothache again,’ he said. (p.21)

The old man sat [the renegade priest] on a packing-case in the little dry patio. He was very fat and short of breath; he panted a little as if after great exertion in the heat… He wore only a shirt and trousers; his feet were bare, but there remained something unmistakably clerical in his manner. Forty years of the priesthood had branded him. (p.28)

[The mestizo] was wearing a shirt, a pair of white trousers, and gym shoes through which one big toe showed – plump and yellow like something which lives underground. He scratched himself under the armpits and came chummily up to the priest’s stirrup. (p.86)

On the first floor a man dressed in formal dark trousers and a white skin-tight vest came out of a bedroom with a towel over his shoulder. He had a little grey aristocratic beard and he wore braces as well as a belt. (p.106)

Theology and existentialism

I’m not interested in the Catholic ‘theology’. In Greene’s hands it’s mostly morbid self-pity dressed up as principle. Eg:

Why should anyone listen to his prayers? Sin was a constriction which prevented their escape; he could feel his prayers weigh him down like undigested food. (p.151)

‘Theologically’, I think this is meaningless. Dramatically, it is yet another of the thousands of ways, of phrases, Greene uses to make the priest feel sorry for himself.

I was more struck by the way the novel creates an archetypal landscape, a symbolic landscape, depicting man’s abandonment in a godless universe etc, a very existentialist notion, very of its time, very dated. And an idea, like many of the others in the book, which is rammed home by repetition.

He bellowed after [the departing boat], but it wasn’t any good: there was no sign of a [anaesthetising] cylinder anywhere on the quay. He shouted once again, and then didn’t trouble any more. It didn’t matter so much after all: a little additional pain was hardly noticeable in the general abandonment. (p.18)

He knew what it meant: the ship had kept to timetable: he was abandoned. (p.19)

Their little shameless voices filled the patio, and he smiled humbly and sketched small gestures for silence, and there was no respect anywhere left for him in his home, in the town, in the whole abandoned star. (p.30)

There was a sense of abandonment, as if he had given up every struggle from now on and lay there a victim of some power…(p.96)

It was an odd thing that ever since that hot and crowded night in the cell he had passed into a region of abandonment… (p.147)

It was loneliness he felt now – even the face had gone, he was moving alone across thatblank white sheet, gong deeper every moment into the abandoned land. (p.157)

His head drooped between his knees; he looked as if he had abandoned everything and been abandoned. (p.205)

Greene manufactures characters by giving them a handful of fictitious memories which the text then adverts to again and again to create a spurious sense of personality. Something similar might be said of the ‘themes’ of the novel: that repeating them is an attempt to deepen them, to give them more meaning. Not for me. They remain outdated clichés, like Dickens’ sexless heroines or Fielding’s hearty squires: they are sociological constructs of the era – the conflicted 1930s – which we look back at with interest and detachment.

The Greene Creeps

Greene is never happier than when nosing out pain and suffering and humiliation and shame and embarrassment and squalor and seediness and sexual failure and bitten fingernails and balding scalps and bad teeth and then recklessly using these as ‘proof’ of the whole universe’s beastly heartlessness.

[His father’s dental cast] had been [Trench’s] favourite toy: they tries to tempt him with meccano, but fate had struck. There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in. The hot wet river-port and the vultures lay in the wastepaper basket, and he picked them out. We should be thankful we cannot see the horrors and degradations lying around our childhood, in cupboards and bookshelves, everywhere. (p.12)

It infuriated [the lieutenant] 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. He knew. (p.25)

The novel gives hundreds of instances, great and small, of people’s shabby physical appearance and sordid behaviour. A high/low point in Greene’s love of the squalid is when the priest is stuffed into a prison cell crammed with people and reeking from the overflowing bucket of faeces, and he hears the unmistakable moaning of a woman as somewhere in the filthy stinking darkness a couple have sex.

Details

I don’t much like the lengthy theological self-pity, and find a lot of the dwelling on squalor so pathological as to be unintentionally funny. But what I enjoy most about Greene’s novels is the attention to detail: the deft character creation from a few strokes, the handful of details which create a locale, the steady stream of arresting details. Details expressed in clear, uninflected language, details which leap from the page carrying complete conviction, details which indicate how deeply Greene has imagined the scene.

Suddenly, out of the forest, a hundred yards away, an officer rode. In the absolute stillness you could hear the creaking of his revolver-holster as he turned and waved. (p.72)

A rout of pigs came rushing round the corner of a hut, taking no notice of anybody. The soldier finished his puttee and stood up. The sunlight coming up above the forest winked on the bottles of the gaseosa stall. (p.77)

The mestizo watched the mules pick their way along the narrow stony path with a look of wistful greed; they disappeared round a shoulder of rock – crack, crack, crack, the sound of their hooves contracted into silence. (p.184)

As Evelyn Waugh pointed out: Greene has a very unsensual use of language, no particular use of symbolism, no unusual vocabulary. All is plain and blunt and limpid. It is the arrangement of the aperçus, of the detailing, their quick juxtaposition, the lack of linking passages, almost like cuts between shots in a movie, which give Greene’s prose its imaginative power.

Related links

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory: illustration by Paul Hogarth

Cover of the Penguin paperback edition of The Power and The Glory, illustration by Paul Hogarth

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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