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27th April
2009
written by Tony
Graham Greene

Graham Greene

I finished this novel quite a while ago, and while I haven’t actively avoided writing this review (I’ve been snowed under at work and it leaves very little mettle for things like this when I get home) I haven’t really felt as though I can do this book justice. There is far more to this book than my limited perspective can grasp on one reading, and it is one of the few books in recent memory (The Master and Margarita being the other) that I immediately felt I needed to read again in order to fully appreciate its subtleties. Touted as Greene’s masterpiece (by none other than John Updike) this is a sparse, short, and searingly raw tale of the exile of an unnamed Catholic priest who is on the run from a fascist and anti-religious government. The novel centers on the revolution in Mexico through the late 1920s that viciously suppressed any and all religion on the order of then president Plutarco Elías Calles. The doctrine was especially brutal in the state of Tobasco, where this novel takes place. There is no use denying that this novel traverses some difficult territory and deals with the human condition in a way that is at once honest and often disturbing. For all of the religious dogma covered in this book, I find it a peculiarly secular telling. This isn’t to say that Greene eschews religious rhetoric or symbolism, nor does it mean that he in any way condones the actions of the oppressors in the novel. More succinctly, I find his treatment of the topics at hand to be objective and almost detached. This is odd, even as it occurs to me, considering how clearly he maps the lives contained within this novel. The “whiskey priest” (more than a drunkard, he is considered morally weak) is portrayed with stunning clarity, his pain and regret palpable. The direct, often terse, dialogue is honest and brutal and Greene nestles it within an environment that is unforgiving and barren, allowing the reader to share in the slow, grinding forces at work on the priest and the people around him. The first thought that comes to my mind is that of a chicken’s gizzard. No. Wait for it.  This book is a chicken, the landscape and the people in it are the stones the chicken swallows and the priest is the seed that the stones relentlessly grind to bits. It seems strange, and perhaps ignominious to compare this book to a chicken, but I doubt I could come up with a better metaphor. The simplicity of the language and the human scale of the story are unpretentious and undeniable. While nothing about this book is common, in the derogative sense, comparing it to livestock feels right. This book goes about its business, it moves you along and, in its ignoble way, is powerful yet plain. You can look the chicken in the eye and watch it watch you, and while it slowly and invisibly grinds its seeds to pulp and you stew in your own humanity you realize its simplicity is its power. Apparently, despite the wishes of many detractors, Pope Paul the VI gave Greene the thumbs up on this book. It’s not hard to see why those of faith would object to this book, as it presents a cowardly, fallen-away priest who is unrepentant of his past sins and who ultimately achieves nothing of value to anyone else. This is a large part of the reality of this novel, the failure of the priest paraded in front of generally uncaring villagers. Yet, through it all, the priest retains faith in a twisted way. He still believes in the power Eucharist, he still gives communion, and in this way shows that he believes in the power of deeds, regardless of their source. In a way it could be said that this point of view favors the actions of the individual rather than demanding unimpeachable morals. Greene acknowledges that people are flawed, frail and imperfect, and rather than advocating that they try to deny these problems, he seems to suggest that your internal struggles are your own and don’t cloud the works you do in the world. While there is no denying that this book is a staunch advocate of faith, I found it to be a profoundly humanist and eerily secular message. There is far more at work here than I have covered, and perhaps upon further readings I’ll gain more insight, but suffice it to say that this book is a brilliant and harsh portrayal of hope, pain, faith and self-forgiveness. 5 out of 5

3 Comments

  1. 04/27/2009

    Who wouldn’t want to read a book that’s like a chicken, right? Lol. I haven’t read Graham Greene. I should.

  2. 04/27/2009

    An aside: I found a Safran Foer at the used bookstore today! In perfect condition! And received I Capture the Castle in the mail! Two points go to you today. 😀

  3. wow…can you write a book review or what?!? in two months of book blogging, this review is the most stunning i’ve read yet. your figurative language is poetic…such talent!

    just, wow.

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