Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Greene King

Is Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul nothing more than an extended exploration of Pascal’s Wager? It is very well written, as naturally goes without saying, and as always strikes to the core of some of the great dilemmas faced by thinking men.

It is, one might say, a plea for hope; the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Simply because we cannot face the truly dreadful prospect that at the end all there is is darkness and a pile of ashes or a rotting corpse beneath the sod, we have come up with the construct of the reward known as Heaven. Perhaps the ultimate definition of Hell (as somebody rightly pointed out on CiF Belief the other day – there seems to be little mention of ‘down there’ in religious discourse these days. Intriguing in itself I think) is not ‘other people’, but rather the absence of others all together.

In The Honorary Consul, yet another of Greene’s superbly drawn fallen priests – Father Rivas – embodies the struggle between faith and evidence; hope and hopelessness; good and evil, perfectly. He is neatly balanced against the left-leaning, cynical and cold-hearted Dr Plarr, with his quest for an absent father (in this case without the capital ‘F’) and the revolutionary Aquino, who carries his mutilated hand as a visual symbol of his political struggle – the torture he has suffered at the hands of the authorities turning him towards Marxism. These great questions of faith and humanity are not discussed in some dusty drawing room as abstract ideas, but – in the style of a great John Ford Western – are given vibrancy against a backdrop of global politics and the local expression of these forces at work, as the kidnapping drama plays itself out around the almost pathetic protagonists. These men, faced with the reality of the evil which is everywhere – in government, in the media, in us all – turn away from God and strive to find their answers elsewhere. Yet none of this is simple, as I hope is clear from the brief synopsis above. Rivas cannot – despite his best efforts – truly deny his holiness, because those around him simply will not let him, dependant as they are on the comfort a priest provides them.

Greene was famously a Catholic of course, and I always struggle to understand why those who are clearly intelligent enough to produce great works of art are seduced by the surplices and the sacristy. He even converted, while still quite young, persuaded by a priest named Father Trollope to change his atheist ways. Maybe it's that the power of the myths behind the stories of the Bible are so resonant. Or maybe (and Greene clearly had quite a life, travelling to distant places and watching – as well as occasionally participating in – moments of great historical import. So what do I know by comparison?) he did take Blaise’s bet, figuring that he had (literally) nothing to lose. We cannot really know the answer, and it is a measure of the man that he never flinched from exposing the failures of the established church while recognising the virtue of true belief. God, goes the argument towards the gripping climax of the novel, is evolving in the same way we are (not in terms of scientific evolution, but more in the sense of evolving towards a more humane and humanist society) and ultimately his ‘night side’ will wither away, leaving only the ‘day side’ as a symbol of hope for us all. Through our own spiritual redemption, we also redeem God.

Well, I’m not sure about that, but it’s a damn fine book anyway.

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