Why read a 1940 man-on-the-run classic
by Rob Neufeld
For instance, “The Power and the Glory,” Graham Greene’s 1940 thriller about political oppression in Mexico, exemplifies the man-on-the-run story; and does a couple of other impressive things as well.
If you make it a book discussion pick, or a book-a-week choice for the 50 Books Challenge (a current trend), you’ll find yourself hooked by history and humanity like a person who loves possibilities.
See below for upcoming book discussions in the region.
Love the sinner
Let’s start by talking about sin, and—so that people don’t turn away—let’s call it something else: half-heartedness. It’s more compassionate.
The term comes up when the unnamed main character in “The Power and the Glory,” a priest on the lam from an anti-Catholic government, finds himself in a hut with a two-toothed indigent who has latched onto him because there’s a reward for the priest’s capture.
When the priest tries to escape by walking over the sleeping mestizo, the hanger-on grabs the priest’s ankle. “Where are you going?” he says; and traps the priest in another way, too, by saying he needs to make his confession.
“The awful jumble of the gross, the trivial, and the grotesque,” Greene writes, “shot up between the two yellow fangs, and the hand on the priest’s ankle shook and shook with the fever.”
It was pathetic, and so ordinary, and the priest can’t resist taking an interest. “It was too easy,” he thinks, “to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization—it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”
So, we’re all beautiful and we’re all pathetic in Greene’s and the priest’s view.
To make his case, Greene creates the most extreme situations. In one scene, the priest exposes his desperate self in a contest with a lame, starving dog over a bone.
In another scene, his love for his seven-year-old daughter, Brigitta—the product of a drunken night—overwhelms him when he takes refuge in the mother’s town. The girl, laughed at by village children, has nothing but disdain for him.
“The world was in her heart already,” he laments, “like the small spot of decay in a fruit.”
He hugs her though she screeches, and tells her, “I am your father and I love you.” She looks at him. “My dear, my dear,” he implores, “try to understand that you are—so important...The president in the capital goes guarded by men with guns—but my child, you have all the angels of heaven.”
Then a man brings the priest his mule, and the priest flees again, tracking the police so that he might walk unsuspected in their wake.
Body and soul
The priest’s odyssey tests and reveals his world view, which centers on his instinct for beauty and grace rather than vengeance and self-righteousness. Survival does concern him, and he’s great at it, but he giggles when he’s engaged in a chase; and he often tries, unsuccessfully, to give himself up.
This redeeming aspect of the plot puts Greene at the opposite end of the spectrum from Quentin Tarantino, my poster boy for cheapened culture. Plots are more interesting and even scarier when people’s souls, and not just their pain and anguish, are at stake.
Greene’s non-doctrinal embrace of the Catholic faith puts his protagonist in a position to compassionately treat humanity under the worst of circumstances.
And things are the worst in the Mexican region in which Greene sets his novel. Vultures, beetles, mosquitoes; poverty, repression, and rainstorms plague one’s days.
Within this hell-on-earth, the author has the priest encounter not only the craven mestizo, but also: a faith-abandoning priest who three times acts the coward; a smugly pious woman who denounces him in a prison cell; a Mayan woman who engages him in a ghoulish version of a Christian ritual; a 13-year-old girl who stands up for human principles and protects him; a German couple in a safe area who advocate middle-class shallowness; and an atheist police lieutenant who leads the hunt for the priest.
The human condition
It is a rule of good suspense that an author must tighten the screws; that is, make things as hopeless as possible for the hero.
Greene extends that worry to the human condition. His characters are trapped by history. Grace, God’s promise, seems as unlikely as the prospect of angels in the priest’s daughter’s life.
“God is love,” the priest affirms to the lieutenant. “I don’t say the heart doesn’t feel a taste for it, but what a taste. The smallest glass of love mixed with a pint pot of ditch-water. We wouldn’t recognize that love.”
Celebrating Mass, the priest tells his poor congregation, “Pain is part of joy,” as hunger is to eating and a long betrothal to marriage. “That is why I tell you that heaven is here: this is a part of heaven just as pain is a part of pleasure.”
The lieutenant also loves the peasants, for he shares their background. After letting a boy handle his gun, he reflects that he would eliminate from children’s lives “everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious, and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth—a vacant universe and a cooling world, the right to be happy in any way they choose. He was quite prepared to make a massacre for their sakes.”
People are indeed driven by great concepts, as are the best novels. Such concepts represent aching appeals for goodness.
The Vatican banned “The Power and Glory” when it came out, which raises another point about book discussions: controversy is good.
“Troubling the spirit of calm that should prevail in a Christian,” the Holy Office opined, the novel should never have been written. It also called Greene’s mind, “odd and paradoxical.” In 1965, Greene had an audience with Pope Paul VI, who told him to pay no mind to certain church officials.
Religion is one of the topics about which one is not supposed to converse in polite society. But when you have Bill Maher mocking believers as irrational while, at the same time, rational society is building robots and exploring space while populations despair and Earth burns, you have to open your mind to paradoxes.
It’s as the priest tells the lieutenant: “We agree about a lot of things...that the world’s unhappy whether you are rich or poor—unless you are a saint...And there won’t always be good men in your party. Then you’ll have all the old starvation, beating, get-rich anyhow.” There’s no obvious path.
What is the way? There’s a lot to think about.
UPCOMING BOOK DISCUSSIONS
Tues., Jan. 26th, 1:30 p.m.: “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline at Watauga County Public Library, Boone (264-8784 ext. 2).
Thurs. Jan. 28, 7 p.m.: “Nazi Literature in the Americas” by Roberto Bolano, tr. by Chris Andrews, at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, Asheville (254-6734).
Wed. Feb. 3, 7 p.m.: “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, tr. by Richard Pevear, at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, Asheville (254-6734).
Thurs., Feb. 11, 5:30 p.m.: “The Dark Messiah,” short story by Thomas Wolfe, at The Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Asheville (253-8304).
Thurs., Feb. 18, 6:30 p.m.: “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt at The Forum at Diana Wortham Theatre (210-9837).