The Power and the Glory
by Graham Greene
Religion, like sex, has always been a thorny subject to write about, especially for novelists keen to preserve their literary integrity and make a decent living.
Come across as a pious conservative and you risk alienating an already sceptical audience; flirt with the intoxicating dangers of parody, satire and criticism and you will quickly fall foul of the moralists, the priests and the imams. So where's the middle ground?
If anyone managed to straddle the line between exploring personal beliefs and pursuing an academic interest in humanist thought and emotion it was Graham Greene. The English novelist and playwright converted to Catholicism in 1926. In the late 1930s he undertook a trip to Mexico to explore the violent repression of the church by the authorities and find a way of making sense of it all.
What emerged was a travel journal of sorts entitled The Lawless Roads that would provide the main source material for his novel, The Power and the Glory, two years later.
Greene was interested in highlighting the brutal anti-clerical purges that were taking place in the country, and put it into the context of a world that was becoming increasingly polarised and in thrall to socialist ideals. But instead of portraying the two warring sides as being at an impasse, Greene conjured up a world in which both sides were made up of myriad vices, fears, contradictions and anxieties.
Greene understood that we all exhibit varying degrees of the same faults and the same virtues. Nobody exhibited this more than the novel's chief protagonist, the "whisky priest". Unnamed, he is a man on the run - from both the authorities who wish to kill him and from a past full of vice and wrongdoing.
He is a heavy drinker with an illegitimate child and a history of selfishness and self-abasement, and his main challenge comes from the lieutenant, a violent idealist who is determined to rid the country of the Catholic faith.
As the troubled priest criss-crosses the country, he has his own crisis of faith, and while remaining as loyal as possible to those who seek solace in his spiritual authority, he begins to question his legitimacy, finally resigning himself to his impending demise.
That Greene managed to write a novel that is both nihilistic and hopeful is a testament to a man who was fully in control of his art.