Graham Greene. The Power and the Glory. 1940. Anglo-Catholic existentialism.
This poignant and most Anglo-Catholic of novels traces a wandering Mexican “whiskey priest” tormented by self-doubt—recognition of his own sins of alcoholism, fornication, and pride—as he labors to fulfill his clerical duties and evade arrest and execution by Mexico’s revolutionary authorities during the 1920s. His nemesis is an ascetic lieutenant, who like Javert is gripped by an idee fixe, in his case to purge the nation of priestly vestiges of the old order so that no children of Mexico will ever have to grow up amid the squalor and ignorance he himself survived.
Despised by his indigenous congregants, who nevertheless remain loyal to the God he represents, the priest escapes his enemies, only to return at the behest of a traitor to fulfill his duty to confess and absolve, even if he cannot forgive himself and even if no priest will attend his death. Betrayal comes at the hands of a yellow-fanged “half-caste” Judas who embodies the racial unease with which ethnoculturally homogenous Englishmen greet mestizaje (the process of racial intermingling that became an ideology for revolutionary Mexico).
Greene explores a lonely little martyr’s “dark night of the soul” amid the rich, stained, filthy fabric of the beautiful tapestry of humanity. The novel is a captivating character study of despair, duty, and redemption, deeply rooted in Greene’s own troubled Catholicism. So relentlessly realistic is its portrait of a priest’s descent into sin and doubt, with redemption but a “perhaps,” that the Catholic Church actually threatened to proscribe the novel, according to this article in The Atlantic.
I have just a few small caveats. First, the priest and the atheistic lieutenant (whom the priest acknowledges, in a surprised tone, to be a “good man”) seem to be Mexican in name only—we get no sense of a uniquely Mexican sensibility. Also, the intrusions of minor English-speaking characters feel jarring at times.
But these are mere foibles. With his dour Indian peasants and his smothering, enervating sense of desolation, Graham Greene taps into his own experiences traveling in Mexico to evoke the Hispanic arts’ baroque, terrifying sense of the sublime (see Kant‘s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime).