In a poor, remote section of southern Mexico, the Red Shirts have taken control, God has been outlawed, and the priests have been systematically hunted down and killed. Now, the last priest strives to overcome physical and moral cowardice in order to find redemption. 240 pp.
Greene was commissioned to visit Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution being enacted there and this provides the subject matter for the novel. A catholic priest is being hunted down by a fanatical lieutenant, who sincerely believes that the state will benefit by his elimination. Most of the priests have fled and so this last one (the whiskey priest) has become a bit of a cause celeb-re, who may or may not escape his fate if he makes it across the border.
Greene's visit to Mexico cannot have been a particularly enlightening experience for him because from the very first sentence the reader is plunged into a night mare world of filth, heat and deprivation:
"Mr Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder, into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few vultures looked down from the roof with shabby indifference: he wasn't carrion yet".
This first part of the novel takes alienation as its theme. Mr Tench: a dentist has no money to leave the shabby port town. A gringo bank robber and murderer is on the loose. Padre Jose has been forced into marriage and a rebuttal of his catholic faith. Mr Fellows the plantation owner is trying to make a home of a land where his wife is made ill by the heat. In the villages the whiskey priest is finding it harder and harder to find shelter.
The second and by far the longest part of the novel deals with the priests ever more desperate attempts to keep body and soul together as he flees the red shirts. He has to offer a mass as a kind of bribe in the village where he has fathered a child. Greene fills in some of his background, he is not a good priest but no different from many; "an energetic priest was always known by his debts". He is befriended by an informer a sort of vampire figure with yellow fangs and provides him with many of his moments of self knowledge:
"No, if he had been humble like Padre Jose, he might be living in the capital now with Maria on a pension. This was pride devilish pride, lying here offering his shirt to the man who wanted to betray him. Even his attempts at escape had been half-hearted because of his pride-the sin by which the angels fell"
This section also contains some of Greene's most unforgettable scenarios: a night the priest spends in a filthy overcrowded cell, hiding his identity from the authorities but trusting his fellow prisoners with his true identity, leaving it to fate to save or condemn him, then the shameful fight with the broken backed dog for a meaty bone and finally his futile attempts to save the life of an Indian women's child.
Part three finds the priest safely across the border but the informer finds him and the priest is tempted back to certain death by the chance to save the soul of the fatally wounded gringo murderer. Here Greene superbly captures the cowardly priests dilemma. A chance for salvation a chance to be true to his faith, a real chance to make some difference. This leads to the most fascinating part of the novel where the Lieutenant and the priest come to accommodate each others views. Both think the other is basically a good man.
Part four steps back from the priest and we see the results of his actions through the eyes of the dentist Mr Tench.
I think this is an important novel of it's time that raises many issues concerning a persons struggle to make sense of his life. In this case it is a Catholic priest and so faith and the catholic church are high in Greene's scheme of things, however there is much to be enjoyed by any reader with an interest in the human condition. Greene is at the top of his game here bringing so much to the table for discussion. The book can be read and interpreted in a number of ways. My advice if you are at all interested in Graham Greene's novels is to make sure you read this one.
What I’m sure I will remember most about this novel is just how very well written it was: Greene definitely has a way with words and images that makes his prose feel so absolutely right and impeccably assembled that no other words or images could really be acceptable substitutes.
This was my first Grahame Greene, but it will definitely not be my last.
Don't get me wrong; the fact that the novel does not revolve around Mr. Trench is not a problem. In fact, the book is full of these kinds of characters. At every turn there is someone equally interesting – real characters who grow in a real environment. And the result is a book which deserves its classic status.
As noted, the book is set in Mexico in an area where the socialist have taken control. Among the many changes, they have outlawed religion – effectively making it a crime punishable by death. In practicality, the success of this shut down is mixed – the people have not completely bought in to the idea. However, priests have the choice of rescinding their vows or being shot.
The main protagonist is Catholic priest on the run. He is unnamed, but often referred to as the "whiskey priest" because of how far he has fallen (including, obviously, alcoholism). All he wants is to live and to escape. However, his loyalty to his beliefs continues to draw him back in. That loyalty is best exemplified in the fact that one would think it would be quite easy for him to rescind his vows. However, no matter how far he has fallen he cannot do this. We follow him as he tries to escape and, through this journey, see his effect on other people (intended and unintended) and the effect on his own belief in himself. At its core, it is a book about how good exists within everyone, but that puts too trivial a homily on the complicated individuals contained herein.
Graham Greene spent time in the area – using his experiences in the area as research for the book. And it is evident because there is nothing that draws you out of the moment. His descriptions feel accurate. He has put the reader in a world few of us ever have experienced, but recognize the moment he describes it.
And, as noted the characters are real. Even the slightest of them refuse to be cut from cardboard, but are three-dimensional people who have motivations and lives we can glimpse. As I have indicated, any one of them is fleshed out sufficiently that you can see a separate novel being written about their lives.
Ultimately, we believe in the character of the "whisky priest" and we believe the tale that is told. And, in the process, we have been told a very good story which has depth, heart, and (an aspect so often missing in books considered classics) readability.
Graham Greene writes with enormous economy, and yet still manages to paint his scenes and characters so vividly. Nothing feels rushed or condensed, but in 200 pages he can transmit a very complex story and explore all the corners. Both 'power' and 'glory' call upon preservertion of the next generation as their highest value, seeking to 'save' them from evil. The priest is more pressed to examine his life and assumptions due to circumstances, and he is in the best position to learn from what he experiences assuming that he can survive them. The lieutenant is more free to indulge in might-makes-right and therefore less introspective as he justifies any extremity, but he faces incomprehensible stubborn resistance by the very people he is trying to help as he exorcises the menace of the church. Neither side seems to grasp, for the lack of either side making the appeal, that it is ultimately hearts and minds which will decide the victor.
One quirk I dislike about Greene's style is his penchant for suddenly introducing scene cuts to feature unidentified characters, leaving me foundering. It can take some flipping pages back and forth to figure out if these are new characters or familiar ones, and who was being referred to as whom. That frustration aside, reading more of Greene is always sure to be a pleasure whatever his subject.
This novel deals with the priest's struggle with the people prosecuting him as well his own struggle dealing with the gradual loss of faith and moral bindings. It would probably carry deeper meaning for a religious person but for me it was uninteresting. The pace is slow and the book goes nowhere. The language is beautiful.
A 2.5/5 read.
This little gem turned out to be quite a surprise. It is indeed powerful and it is glorious. Greene's writing seems really simple and is easy to read, and yet is so full of meaning. I am still soaking it all in.
As the lead character, the 'whiskey-priest', moves from one place to another, Greene takes us along on a journey taut with suspense and tension. However, it is really his moral journey which is the most captivating. We not only witness the priest's struggle to escape, we also get to look into his tormented soul and his ambivalence. He is constantly torn between following what his religious faith has taught him while his worldly sense seems to make more practical sense. He feels guilty for his sins, but he loves the fruit of his sin. He almost wishes that he be caught so that he could be rid of the fear and the misery. But doesn't his faith teach him that it is his duty to save his soul? He has sinned and is immoral, but he is also full of compassion and love for fellow human beings.
A question that haunts the priest and the reader throughout is whether he will find redemption and if his soul will achieve salvation? Or do immoralities and sins always overshadow a man's goodness? Greene makes it so easy for one to understand his characters. The priest, with his virtues and his flaws, feels like a very real person. It is not at all difficult to imagine such a person walking some part of this earth in flesh.
While we read the thoughts and the convictions of the priest, the lieutenant serves as the opposing voice. Both have some ideals which I do not completely agree with, but I also don't consider either of them to be totally wrong. I also liked that the priest and the lieutenant, though rivals, are able to see the good in each other and have mutual respect. Through these two characters, Greene brings forth the impermanence of beliefs through which one defines what is "right". Life can always take such turns that one's firmly believed ideals cease to make sense anymore.
As the journey proceeds and we encounter various places and characters, Greene also reveals the misery, poverty, disease and utter desolation that has engulfed these wastelands. He captures the feeling of the place and the moment with just the right words. Through his words, you can almost feel the oppressive heat or the thundering rainstorm or the tranquility and freshness of an early morning. Different characters that we meet give a sense of how bleak and despairing their life is. There is a person who cannot shirk off the idea of death, there is another with a desperate cheerfulness who has to constantly remind himself that he is happy. There are several instances where we see the difference between the world-view of adults and children. Adults who have known better times and have only those memories to draw any happiness from. While the only world their children have seen is this world of misery. These children haven't known what happiness, hope or faith means. They have matured before they have aged. All the playfulness and innocence of childhood has been drained away.
Another frequently encountered theme is that of abandonment. The words 'abandoned', 'abandonment' crop up very often..be it a man who has abandoned his family, a child abandoned by her father, a man deserted in the forest. However, what Greene is really hinting at is the abandonment of this land and its people. They are cut-off from the rest of the world to rot in suffering, while the world and civilization outside progress. The future holds no promises, all hope and faith has vanished. Life has ceased to have any meaning, God himself has ceased to exist. Death is an everyday affair for them and life is just a duty to be performed from day-to-day without ever knowing its joy and charm.
She said: "I would rather die."
"Oh," he said, "of course. That goes without saying. But we have to go on living."
"She was one of those garrulous women who show to strangers the photographs of their children: but all she had to show was coffin."
For the most part the novel is bleak and grim, but it speaks of hope as well.
"It is one of the strange discoveries a man makes that life, however you lead it, contains moments of exhilaration: there are always comparisons which can be made with worse times:even in danger and misery the pendulum swings."
Greene also reminds us of how peace and beauty can exist in the smallest of moments, which people often fail to notice until it has been left far behind.
"It was nearly like peace, but not quite. For peace you needed human company-his alone-ness was like a threat of things to come. Suddenly he remembered - for no apparent reason - a day of rain at the American seminary, the glass windows of the library steamed over with central heating, the tall shelves of sedate books, and a young man - a stranger from Tucson - drawing his initials on the pane with his finger - that was peace. He looked at it from outside: he couldn't believe he would ever again get in."
There is so much more I have to say about this novel, I could never cover it all in a review. Let me just say it is so very human.