The Power and the Glory (Penguin Classics) Paperback – February 25, 2003
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About the Author
John Updike author of Rabbit, Run and other celebrated works, is a preeminent American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet.
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It is not an easy read nor, at first glance, an uplifting one, although one can seem moments of redemption and revelation laid out in the book. Everything is set in a Mexican state that I believe is meant to represent Tabasco during the 1920's, shortly after the Institutional Revolutionary Party's ascension to power. At that time, and in that state, it seems that the Mexican government was carrying out a pitiless purge of Roman Catholic priests, and although there were a number of believers, they observed the Catholic rites underground. It appears that the government effected the purge using philosophical observations akin to Lenin's observation that religion is the opiate of the masses.
Greene had spent time in Mexico prior to writing the novel, and wrote a memoir that expressed his loathing for the country and all that he saw. And certainly, both the foreigners and the natives living in the novel's setting are deeply unhappy. The former suffer from a profound sense of dislocation, and often dream of going home. The latter are oppressed by unbelievably cruel hardships, including political repression and hunger.
Vargas Llosa explained that the novel presented a conflict between the upright Lieutenant, who is totally committed to his secular beliefs and hopes to extirpate the church in order to do away with obscurantism in the hopes of bringing paradise to this world. His bite noire is a priest, who is sinful, guilty of fornicating and drinking and yet, much more human than the rigid Lieutenant.
However, I did not see it that way. The Lieutenant is admirable in his own way, particularly when compared to his corrupt and complacent superiors. However, Greene paints the Lieutenant in broad brush strokes and spends relatively little time with him. Greene spends far more time with the corrupted "whiskey-priest," and the real conflict is between the whisky-priest's attempts to discern the nature of his own calling, which he pursues with increasing diligence, which is remarkable considering horrific suffering that he passes through, including near starvation. Still, the whiskey priest cannot decide if he was closer to God when he was a younger priest, relatively well to do and with a parish, or if he is closer now, even if he spends the night in jail and even if he robs rotten meat from a dog because he is hungry.
For me, Greene uses the whiskey-priest to explore various theological conundrums. As the novel progresses, we see that the whiskey-priest is becoming weary of life, which is understandable because he has been on the run for eight years. And yet, when he returns to the very state where the police are chasing him, ostensibly to hear the last confession of a murderer, Greene makes clear that in part, the whiskey priest has begun to despair of this life. Thus, Greene asks us to ask if the priest's decision to return is a Christ-like gesture, in which he willingly sacrifices his own life for the betterment of another? Or it is a selfish gesture - in which his desire to die is in a way reflective of a selfish desire to cease living and thus cease suffering?
On that note, a remarkable aspect of the novel is the tremendous hatred that nearly every character feels towards this world. And yet, that contributes to the novel's power, because Christianity indeed deals and indeed to a degree condones a contempt for this life.
Regardless of the feelings that he may have harbored about Mexico, Greene sets out the priest's struggles with great subtlety and precision, showing him advancing towards a nearly beatific state at times while alternatively feeling repulsed and disgusted by the people around him. At each point, we are encouraged to ask if the priest is moving closer to God, or indeed farther away.
Set in a remote part of Southern Mexico where the Catholic Church and priests have been outlawed and hunted down by a political/military group called the Red Shirts (Communists), it reveals the undying faith of the peasant classes and the corrupt leaders and fat cats who are suppose to be God's representatives on earth (the church, priests, bishops, etc.).
The lone priest left in the area, a person all to human with a woeful record of debauchery, is hunted down throughout the book by the Red Shirts and a reward has been placed on his head. It is through the priest's capacity to allude capture that we learn how the situation in this part of Mexico developed. This book is based on real life events and Mr. Greene's analysis of the situation (he was a reporter during the upheaval) is both fascinating, enthralling, and heart wrenchingly accurate. As a Catholic, it had me cringing and yet I would strongly recommend this book to all Catholics and all people of different faiths. An amazingly powerful piece of writing.
It’s a story of demons, the demons that chase all of us as we try to live our lives. Under the anti-Catholic regime in the Mexican state, churches, priests, are all banned. To be caught with wine (with its ability to be used in the Mass) is an act of treason. Some priests renounce their faith, marry and live sad lives. The protagonist of the story, the Whiskey Priest (he’s an alcoholic) lives a different kind of desperation. On the run from the authorities, he’s afraid and weak. His is the desperation of those on the run from not only the authorities but from themselves.
Throughout the story are the stories of the lives of various people. Also lives of desperation (it’s a rather depressing book!).
In the end, after capture, facing death by firing squad for treason, the priest seems to summon up a strange courage. This last part of the book made the rest of it worth reading.
It’s a book that will stay with me, yes, depressing, but with a message. More than anything, even though the Church has its faults, it provides hope for many. Not only hope but a comforting rhythm to life. The alternative is not a world without the Church.
Top international reviews
Living the fearful journey, as seen through the unnamed priest's eyes, we experience the life of hardship and poverty as it was then, together with corruption, treachery, and the kindness of some people.
In taking us on this warts-and-all journey into the world of the "whisky priest", Greene is exposing the complexities of human character, gently showing us the contradictions inherent in peoples' lives and views of ourselves and others. Yes, we can be drunkards, arrogant and weak-minded, but also full of compassion, humanity and responsibility. We can be vengeful and murderous, but also coherent and pure. Who is the better person - the honest, incorruptible lieutenant who won't flinch at taking hostages and killing innocent people in order to create a better world for their children, or the corrupt, affable police chief who causes less damage through his laziness and incompetence? The priest who gives up his honour and everything he believes in for a cushy life, or the one who refuses to hand himself in, thereby causing huge pain and suffering to those whose help he is dependent on?
Greene has beautifully crafted a book looking at human frailties and strengths with great subtlety and tact. The protagonist of this novel - the sinner priest - is so real and multifaceted that I ended up recognising parts of him in countless people, not to mention in myself. This is a book I enjoyed reading and which I am sure will stay with me for a long time yet.
You will not get happy reading this book, but it will hit you in the face
Setting the scene with another character instead of the main one was intelligent and worked pretty well in keeping the reader's attention. The plot evolves brilliantly but most of all, the ending is simple but beautiful.
Reading in book club, Only half way through and so far it's a good read. Very vivid description of locations and some characters.
Based in Mexico at the time of persecution of the church by the state. Found needed to read following chapters to comprehend the full happenings in Chapter 1 but after that the story unfolds and flow more easily.