14 April 2012

Monsignor Quixote (Graham Greene)

Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 2008)

Father Quixote was peacefully tending to his parishioners at El Toboso when he received a letter from his bishop. The Holy See was promoting him into a monsignor, and all because he was endorsed by a bishop (a different one) whom he once aided in a time of need. This was a surprise, all the more for the bishop who considered the priest's ways to be bent and misguided. He and the bishop did not always see eye to eye, but the Holy See had the final say and that's that.

With his promotion, the now-Monsignor Quixote found himself vacillating about his new ministry. A new parish priest was sent to replace him and Father (he was still not used to be called Monsignor) Quixote took the opportunity to ask for some time off, a holiday where he could recover his wits and take things in stock. It's not everyday one gets to be elevated to a position one was not asking for. The bishop approved the request, obviously still reeling from the turn of events. How did Father Quixote maneuvered his way into this? (Animosity and hatred among men of cloth weren't really that uncommon.)

It was hard for Father Quixote to be leaving El Toboso after all these years. But he had his marching orders. Leaving with him on his holiday was Mayor Enrique Zancas, also known as Sancho, an open communist and politician defeated in the recent election in the village. The two of them were to ride in Father Quixote's old but beloved Seat 600, named Rocinante. They were bringing a lot of good old Manchegan wine.

The journey of our two characters was a sally into the map and territory of spiritual and religious life. The romp across the Spanish landscapes framed Father Quixote and Mayor Sancho's constant philosophical exchanges, their endless debates between the merits and virtues of Catholic life and Marxism. The parallelism with Father Quixote's "ancestor" was with the way theology was treated as a form of chivalry. In the same way the ancestor steeped himself in books of chivalry (and in the process may have lost his mind), the priest learned the doctrines and teachings governing his religion and blindly stuck to them.

For his part, the unbeliever and worldly Sancho always set off his communist ideals against the Catholic priest's belief. The interaction between the two was not always easy, but with banter and wine, the right mix of good chemistry, a close friendship developed between them. Their adventures "on the high roads of the world" consisted of set pieces that were always a riot of wit.

Mayor Sancho, who played the devil with gusto, was always a taunt to Father Quixote's religious beliefs. But one could also sense the devil's advocate in the character of the priest, who despaired: "How is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief?"

Considered Graham Greene's last religious book, Monsignor Quixote first came out in 1982. In it, the novelist must have given a synthesis of his belief in God and the ways fiction can dramatize it. Greene's was not a faithful adaptation, but boy was it so faithful. Like belief in the reality of fiction, belief in a supreme being was predicated on how much reality the Author could offer his readers. The Catholic novelist relied on clever dialogues and beautiful ironies to bring his point across.

   "[Don Quixote] was a fiction, my bishop says, in the mind of a writer...."
   "Perhaps we are all fictions, father, in the mind of God."

Like Father Quixote's ancestor, the character of this novel insisted on the recognition of his existence in fact, perhaps in the same way the novelist insisted on the existence of God. The literary imagination as metaphor for the religious imagination. With the cast-iron conviction of his ancestor who vehemently denied the truth behind the "fake Quixote", Father Quixote's passionate insistence on his own free will and self-determination lay at the very root of his religious belief.

   "Why are you always saddling me with my ancestor?"
   "I was only comparing—"
   "You talk about him at every opportunity, you pretend that my saints' books are like his books of chivalry, you compare our little adventures with his. Those Guardia were Guardia, not windmills. I am Father Quixote, and not Don Quixote. I tell you, I exist. My adventures are my own adventures, not his. I go my way—my way—not his. I have free will. I am not tethered to an ancestor who has been dead these four hundred years."

The novel's climax was a cunning one. It showed Greene's position cemented via transubstantiation (in a manner of speaking) of fiction into fact and of doubt into belief. When it comes down to it, belief in something does not really require the existence of the thing one believes in. In the words of another priest in the novel, a Trappist monk: "I suppose Descartes brought me to the point where he brought himself—to faith. Fact or fiction—in the end you can't distinguish between them—you just have to choose."


  1. Rise - I'm very curious to read this, as until now I'd thought I'd read all of Graham Greene's work, but realize that I somehow missed this one. It sounds like another exploration (and a timely one) of the gap Greene often writes about (i.e. The Power and the Glory) between the practices of the "official" church and its more self-critical and doubting adherents.

  2. Scott, I'm not familiar with Greene's books as this is the first of his I've encountered. But I would presume that, this being his last fiction directly concerning religion, he must have incorporated his immediate concerns about faith and doubt. And the practices of the church really did figure into this book.

  3. Again as with the first comment, I'd not heard of this book, but liking the idea of it.

  4. Gary, for me it's a good introduction to Greene. Though the only reason I picked this up is the Don Q connection.