Graham Greene’s 1939 novel begins with fragments of lives placed disparately and sketchily in the first pages. We meet, among others, a dentist, an old man and his wife, a military man, and a stranger. Each thread brushes its neighbor only slightly, and reading this for the first time, I wondered if the novel would ever fasten these elements. The word ‘postmodern’ flitted through my head. And then the mule sat down.
In the chapters following, an astounding character flourishes and agonizes, lives boldly and cravenly, and confronts death with equal parts trembling and equanimity. He’s a nameless priest, on the run from Red Shirts who’ve placed a bounty on him and are determined to eradicate the Church from their state. The man is many things- alcoholic, full of sin and mercy, an inappropriate giggler, and the father of a young girl.
Five years ago he had given way to despair–the unforgivable sin–and he was going back now to the scene of his despair with a curious lightening of the heart. For he had got over despair too. He was a bad priest, he knew it: they had a word for his kind–a whisky priest–but every failure dropped out of sight and out of mind: somewhere they accumulated in secret–the rubble of his failures. One day they would choke up, he supposed, altogether the source of grace. Until then he carried on, with spells of fear, weariness, with a shamefaced lightness of heart.
He had heard men talk of the unfairness of a deathbed repentance–as if it was an easy thing to break the habit of a life whether to do good or evil. One suspected the good of the life that ended badly–or the viciousness that ended well. He made another desperate attempt. He said: “You believed once. Try and understand–this is your chance. At the last moment. Like the thief. You have murdered men–children perhaps,” he added…”But that need not be so important. It only belongs to this life, a few years–it’s over already. You can drop it all here, in this hut, and go on for ever…” He felt sadness and longing at the vaguest idea of a life he couldn’t lead himself…words like peace, glory, love.