Powerful and beautiful writing

Until recently I had read no books by Graham Greene but a year or so ago I was considering an alphabet book challenge so I downloaded The Quiet American for letter Q. Although I never completed the challenge I did read the book and enjoyed it a lot so I have now started to read more of this author’s work. My favourite to date is The Third Man (you can read my review here) but I have also read My Man in Havana which is great fun.

The Power and The Glory is set in Mexico at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is being persecuted and there is a prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol. The book focusses on one priest who has not fled the country or accommodated himself to the requirements of the government. He is not a good priest – the text calls him a “Whisky priest” because he drinks too much and he has fathered a child. He is in hiding, passing from one village to another and attending to their spiritual needs before moving on. He knows that there is a very good chance that he will be caught by the soldiers and that if he is he will be shot. He has come to realise that this is his fate but he can’t give himself up to the authorities because that would be effectively committing suicide which is a mortal sin. So he keeps on moving onwards, becoming less welcome at the villages which he endangers by his presence.

This book, which I read on audio and was narrated by Andrew Sachs, is a character study of the unnamed priest and an account of what happens to those around him. The book is full of memorable characters – the ex-pat dentist who can’t afford to go home, the young girl who runs her family’s business because they can’t, the penniless peasant who follows the priest around trying to betray him for the reward, the daughter who despises him, the priest who has married and who is determined to do everything he needs to do to survive, and the lieutenant who has the job of catching and killing the priest but who may be the kindest and fairest person the priest meets on his travels. The character of the priest, however, is the best portrayed and we follow him and suffer with him as he tries to escape while knowing what his fate will be.

There are lots of memorable moments in this book – the time the priest spends in prison, his problem securing wine for communion, how he has to look on as others are taken hostage and the desperation that makes him fight with a crippled dog for the meat left on an animal bone because he is so hungry. The book also follows some of the other characters and we understand why a man will subject himself to public ridicule to live, we suddenly realise what has happened to the young girl who helped the priest and we see why the lieutenant might pass a few coins to a man to prevent him being imprisoned.

I was captivated by this book and the power of the writing. I felt that the author managed to convey why a man who had the chance to escape might have turned back in order to do what God required of him even though he knew that he was a failure as a priest. No one in this book is living the life they want, they are all doing their best and the book shows their despair but also their endurance. Definitely one of the best books I have read recently – powerfully and beautifully told.

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