Sunday, September 26, 2004

Graham Greene

October 2 is the centennial of the birth of Graham Greene, the British novelist and essayist whose works provided a glimpse and critique of the fading world of British hegemony (birthplace). His stories are set in far off places and center on British bureaucrats and adventurers who pretend that they can remain aloof of local politics, but who are eventually embroiled in political intrigue. Decolonization affects them in later novels. Among his many novels The Quiet American is probably best known because it recently appeared in film. (I am certain that Greene is either loved or reviled on political grounds because of that novel. Despite his portrayal of American idealism in agent Pyle, Greene also criticizes the British realism of journalist Fowler--he is a despicable man whose only advantage over Pyle is that he survives.)

I have been reading The Power and the Glory, a novel set in Revolutionary Mexico that is reputed as "the greatest Catholic novel". It deals with the purge of Catholicism in the southern state Chiapas in the 1930s (religion in Mexico). The state governor pursues the last priest in the territory: a hard drinking, adulterous man who does not deserve to be a hero (or possible martyr), but has been thrust into that role by necessity. He tries to escape Chiapas to safer places, running through isolated plantations and marshes, hunted by the police. Peasants, hungry for religion, stop him so that he will perform masses and other rites, but they inform on him for the reward.

Greene, an active traveler, had just returned from Mexico when he wrote the book. His narrative reflect his arduous journey over the high mountains of Chiapas by mule. It also reflected his encounter with popular Catholicism. Many Britons in the early twentieth century conversion or toyed therewith (CS Lewis being a prime example). Greene's conversion was motivated more by the baroqueness of Catholicism, not by popular faith. In Mexico Greene confronted (and was repulsed by) the popular belief, the need for religious ritual. In the novel religion is presented as a cultural elements, and one character remarks that Chiapas has become a cultural wasteland without the Church.

Despite its reputation as the greatest Catholic novel, its greatness and Catholic-ness were in doubt when the book was published. According to Greene biographer Norman Sherry, the book was ignored when it was first published in 1940. Popular books concerned Germany and the current World War. Indeed, Graham probably stretched out the process of writing the book in order to avoid the draft board.

Furthermore, the Catholic clergy rebuked Greene and warned Catholics away from reading it. French bishops renounced it, at Cardinal Griffin demanded that Greene make revisions. In their opinion, Greene did not show the redeeming qualities of faith, and he focused on the faults of the clergy. Some contemporary critics have even suggested that the novel should be considered anti-Catholic. Years later, Pope Paul VI met Greene, and he admitted that he read and enjoyed The Power and the Glory. When Greene told the Pope about the criticism he received from the bishops, Paul VI responded:
Mr. Greene, some parts of your books are certain to offend some Catholics, but you should not pat attention to that.


At 3:24 AM, Blogger Joel said...

The Power and the Glory made a strong impression on me when I read it long ago, perhaps because I was in the process of becoming an apostate--as well as being a bit more of an anticlerical leftist than I am now. A somewhat similar novel with an early Tokugawa twist is Silence, by Endo Shusaku ('Japan's Graham Greene').


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