Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene

In some ways, Monsignor Quixote is similar to The Power and the Glory. Both feature, as their protagonist, a priest. In each, the protagonist is being run out of his parish by authorities. Both are grappling with their faith, and both become wandering envoys of the church, performing priestly duties wherever they are needed. Monsignor Quixote can, throughout most of its length, be seen as a lighter parallel story to The Power and the Glory.

Father Quixote is a humble parish priest, administering the host to his poor and uncommitted congregation in Toboso, hometown of Don Quixote. The lines between fiction and fact are blurred as Father Quixote claims to be a descendant of the infamous Don, and indeed, much of Monsignor Quixote resembles that famous story. And of course, it's impossible to pay tribute to Don Quixote without a Sancho Panza, so that role is filled by the Communist ex-mayor of Toboso, nicknamed (of course) Sancho. After helping a passing bishop whose car has broken down, Father Quixote is promoted to Monsignor, angering his local bishop and causing his resulting in his virtual exile from Toboso.

Throughout the novel, Father Quixote and Sancho journey through a series of vignettes that mirror the adventures of the Father's esteemed forefather. He helps a man on the run, and is later mugged by him; he tilts at some windmills; and he has lots of discussion of the worth of Catholicism vs. Communism. Although the Communism references seem a little dated (and Father Quixote's semi-endorsement of Marx seems a little heavy-handed), Father Quixote is another in Greene's line of sympathetic holy men, real people with real doubts and questions. Although Father Quixote never questions his devotion to the faith, he spends a large portion of the book questioning the necessity of Catholic ritual, arriving at conclusions sometimes orthodox and sometimes not.

The tone throughout is fairly light, but near the end, there's an absolutely stunning scene involving a somnambulist mass that ranks among Greene's best. It's a prime example of how hard-hitting Greene's writing can be, even in his minor works, despite his unwillingness to indulge in the sensational. Character and ideas are king, but, as in all of Greene's books, there's a driving undercurrent of drama, internal and external .

Monsignor Quixote is a minor work compared to The Power and the Glory or The End of the Affair, but behind its lighthearted premise and comical inspiration, there's substantial discussion of God, ritual, and the place of religion in the modern world.

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