In The Power and the Glory, Greene fictionalises his distaste for anti-clerical 1930s Mexico through the efforts of a lapsed priest to escape execution by the police. This anonymous ‘whisky priest’ is far from saintly: he craves brandy, is a father, and candidly admits his hypocrisy and unworthiness. But as the last practising priest in the state, he is compelled to promote the Catholic faith – and through his travels he finds that the Christian devotion of communities is strong (frequently stronger than his own devotion), despite the dogma of the civil authorities.
Greene’s depiction of the Mexican pogrom of clerics and one man’s bid to stay alive is more sophisticated than a battle of good versus evil, as it is riddled with ambiguous personalities. The priest drinks excessively and doubts himself, but is at times compassionate and heroic. Likewise, the lieutenant who pursues him is cold and relentless, but his zeal is grounded in a desire to give Mexico’s children a world free of superstition, corruption and fear. Another priest has married to escape execution, while the chief of police regularly breaks the law by drinking spirits. There are no sinless characters in the novel. Instead, faith and violence give some sense of order to the lives of people worn down by poverty.
The cat-and-mouse plot allows the reader to sense the fear of the priest on each occasion that he is captured or placed in danger, especially through his preoccupation with pain rather than death. At times the priest is like a Christ figure wandering dishevelled and exhausted through the sweaty, claustrophobic tropics. He can be coolly fatalistic or implausibly generous, but his constant failings are a reminder of his mortality and the impossibility of his situation.
A poignant book, grounded in historical realism and religious doubt, that conveys one man’s plight to justify his faith in an unforgiving era.