Graham Greene creates a complex and conflicted character: an anonymous priest who constantly teeters between humility and pride, compassion and cruelty, martyrdom and a meaningless death; all while swigging brandy in the process.
The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico during the anti-clericalism period in the 1930s. A priest is on the run, as authorities are hell-bent on hunting him down and executing him for treason. Catholicism was outlawed and priests were either killed or forced to marry.
We first meet him on a port with the intent of sailing away and escaping the anti-Catholic purge. Sidetracked by brandy and the last rites of a dying woman, he missed the boat and ended up on a harrowing journey through remote villages and to what was once his own parish. While evading the police, he holds mass, hears confessions and performs baptisms; still every inch a priest as it seems.
And yet his guilt-ridden introspections reveal a disturbed conscience plagued by secret sins. It has been years since he confessed, he was not faithful to Church edicts in performing his duties, he drinks too much. And he once slept with a woman and got her pregnant.
The novel is riddled with ironies and contradictions, which are reconcilable nonetheless, as they depict honest dilemmas and the cruel humor of the human condition. The priest goes on for days without food and proper rest and perseveres in trying to escape, and yet his silent prayer is “let me be caught soon.” He once spent the night in prison for being drunk and possessing a bottle of brandy, and yet the police never realized he was the fugitive they were chasing. He finally has the perfect opportunity to escape, with money and adequate provisions, and yet he chose to walk into a trap that led to his capture.
It is easy to empathize as we watch him languish in his unexpressed love for his daughter, wallow in hopelessness and isolation, and regret his moral failures as he counts the minutes to his death.
“… he had passed into a region of abandonment – almost as if he had died there… and now wandered in a kind of limbo, because he wasn’t good or bad enough…”
“He had come to the very edge of time: soon there would be no tomorrow and no yesterday, just existence going on for ever. He began to wish he had taken a little more brandy.”
“He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place.”
Fiction could be a window to the real, a revelation of truth. In this book, Greene succeeds in portraying the realities of our inner doubts and moral struggles, the truths about the depravity and virtues of our humanity.