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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Power and the Glory (1940) by Graham Greene

Book Review
The Power and the Glory (1940)
 by Graham Greene


   The Power and the Glory is the third corner of the triangle of "English authors writing novels about Mexico in the first 50 years of the 20th century."  The other two corners are Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and D.H. Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent.  In all three novels "Mexico" itself appears as  a kind of grotesque version of itself, Mexico in a fun-house mirror, if you will.  From the perspective of a colonialist/imperialist literary critique, all three are risible.  All three English novelists based "their" Mexico on scattered travel and as part of a wider trend of Anglo-American engagement with Latin America in the late 19th and early 20th century.

 In light of the rise of Latin American literature in the mid to late 20th century, it's hard to really...take offense.. at the white-guy takes on Mexico.  Surely, we can say that the subsequent success of Latin American authors in English translation mutes any reasonable offense one would take at the presumptions and assumptions of white, English, male authors taking on Mexico.

  Even as I enjoyed each of these books, I felt compelled to wince and mentally apologize for the crude, apish way that many Mexicans are depicted.  This characteristic of the early 20th century "Mexico novel" is common to much colonialist literature, both by those supportive of and critical of the system alike.   Greene, of course, is a "Catholic" author and this Catholicism influence his depiction of the priest persecuting state of Tabasco in Mexico during the 1920s.

  I was generally aware of the history of Mexico and the struggle between the left-leaning government and the Catholic priest, but I actually had to look up the specific episode that the book details: When Catholic priests were declared "traitors" within the state and forced to marry, all the Churches were closed.  Priests who refused to marry were executed or fled.

  The hero priest of the novel- unnamed throughout-  is the last priest standing in Tomas Garrido Canabal's Tabasco state, where he ruled as a dictator between 1920 and 1935.  According to all, Canabal's Tasasco was the "apogee of Mexican revolutionary anti-clericism."  Thus, the plot of The Power and The Glory, about a nameless priest who is hunted like a criminal by police, military and paramilitary "Red Shirts" implicates the excesses of both Communist/Socialist and Fascist dictatorships in the 20th century.

   This depiction of authoritarian fascistic-socialism spans all three books.  In The Plumed Serpent the concern is with creating a "New Mexico" of native, non-Christian elements in a way that clearly anticipates the rise of Nazism.  Under the Volcano has a character who is murdered by right-wing, fascist thugs for being a communist.  And then you've got the nameless priest of The Power and the Glory.   If you want to leave the obvious Colonialist/post-Colonialist critique out of the mix, I quite enjoyed all three books.

  Part of engaging with other cultures and nations involves understanding how our own culture understood other places in the past, and the depiction of early 20th century Mexico is so dark that it seemingly set the tone for popular beliefs about the reality of Mexican existence.  I can see where someone would rather read Latin American authors themselves but when it comes to the 1920s and 30s there is a lack of domestic material to draw from. At least these books are in print and considered classics.

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