17/9/07

GRAHAM GREENE, THE BRITISH DON QUIXOTE

Miguel de Unamo the Spanish philosopher said, “the inner history of Spain is about its soul, which is genuinely pure and vital.” This country has exerted a strong attraction and has been important in the personal and professional lives of many foreign writers, Gerald Brenan, Ernest Hemingway, or George Orwell, amongst others. However, other men of letters also visited Spain and developed a different kind of relation to the country. This is the case of Graham Greene, one the most important novelists of the 20th century, the author of The Quiet American, Stamboul Train or The Third Man.

Tom Burns Marañon in his book Hispanomanía, which is about English speaking travellers in Spain, describes Graham Greene as “an example of erudite love for Spain.” Greene always showed a strong empathy with the country and this started during the Spanish Civil War, when he had been in a certain ideological and moral predicament. He was a left wing catholic – he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1926– and decided not to get involved in the conflict, for he had read about the terrible experiences of the British idealists who had supported the liberal coup of general Torrijos and the Spaniards exiled in England during the 19th century. Greene thought that, due to their dangerous complexities, certain affairs in Spain belonged only to the Spanish.

Greene first came to Spain at the suggestion of Tom Burns’ father, who was the first secretary and head of the press department for the British embassy in Madrid during the forties. The novel Monsignor Quixote is dedicated to him and to Greene’s friend Father Leopoldo Durán, his companion on his incognito trips through Spain. Father Duran in his book Graham Greene: Friend and Brother records memories of their developing friendship as they travelled together by car in the 1970s and the 1980s through central Spain, the uplands of Castilla, the land of the Catholic Kings, St John of the Cross and St Theresa.

Graham Greene was inspired by Cervantes’s well-known novel, Don Quixote. Set in Spain, his fable Monsignor Quixote records the adventures of a modest village priest who, in a confusion of reality and fiction, believes himself to be a descendent of the famous Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, Don Quixote. The other central figure is Enrique Zancas, Sancho, a deposed communist mayor of their hometown El Toboso. Father Quixote is suddenly moved from his parish by an unexpected promotion to the rank of Monsignor, one rank lower than that of bishop. This came about through the intervention of an Italian bishop who, when stuck in El Toboso due to the breakdown of his Mercedes, was impressed by the old priest's hospitality, which provided him with a modest lunch consisting of large quantities of wine and liquor accompanied by a horsemeat steak, and by his ability to fix his car, which had simply run out of petrol. Father Quixote's local bishop is incredulous and outraged when a letter of promotion arrives from the Vatican, for he always thought of the priest as a rather inept person. He grants Father Quixote a leave of absence as a preliminary to getting rid of him and sends a new and self-important young priest, Father Herrera, to take charge of the parish.

Father Quixote joins the Communist ex-mayor of El Toboso, whom he sees as being the double of Sancho Panza, and they set off across Spain for Madrid to buy the purple socks and a bib that are the insignia of the new Monsignor's rank. They travel in a very old Seat 600 car, scarcely bigger than a matchbox, which the priest calls Rocinante after his ancestor's mount. The boot of the car and the back seat are well stocked with local Manchegan wine, cheese and sausage. They also carry volumes of St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa, which are Father Quixote's old books , a work by Father Heribert Jone on moral theology and a copy of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. With all this material, they set off on the most talkative of journeys. Greene gives us the feel of the hot, dry plains of central Spain, which were described so vividly by the poet Antonio Machado. The landscape, language, and art of Castilla express the soul of Spain, the country that during the 16th and 17th century was a powerful empire founded on the Catholic faith.

The aim of the plot is to show Quixotes’s gradual awakening to real life as he and the ex-mayor travel around central Spain. Father Quixote is a humble and innocent man; he lacks any ambition and just wants to remain at home for the rest of his days. However, events change his life when he runs into the world in the region of La Mancha, visiting different towns, sleeping in a brothel, hiding a thief in his car or seeing a pornographic film. He always shows modesty, for he cannot censure or think badly of these extreme situations. On the other hand, ex-mayor Zancas, Sancho, is his ideological opposite: a communist, a total atheist and a devotee of revolution.

The main part of the book is composed of conversation. A long dialogue between the two main and opposing characters, the priest and the communist, washed down with a lot of Mancheagan wine. They make many roadside stops in different places such as Ávila, Franco’s tomb in The Valley of the Fallen (El Valle de los Caídos) and Unamuno’s tomb in Salamanca or Madrid. It is like a travelling symposium where they discuss doubt, which is the link between these two men of different faiths and the place where their opposing ideas meet. As Miguel de Unamuno wrote, “doubt and belief are two halves of the same hinge, neither is defined without the other.” Therefore, in the end it is doubt that makes us human. Both men are unsure and, as faith is a remedy for doubt, either ideological or divine, friendship becomes the higher affirmation of humanity.

Don Quixote has inspired many readers, as well as writers such as Tolstoy, Twain, Calvino or Joyce. It is considered the first modern novel in which the characters find their humanity in the opposite tensions that rise in life, that is, in reason and faith, and in life and death. In this friendly and moving version of Cervantes's fable, we come across that unsteady compound of Catholic faith and Communist sympathy that created the peculiar tension which has contributed so much to Greene's fiction. That tension, although still present –Monsignor Quixote was published in 1981–, was softened by the influence of Manchegan wine combined with sun and finally, Graham Greene reaches a conclusion when Quixote and Sancho are looking for shade in which to eat. They sit under the ruined wall of an outhouse belonging to an abandoned farm that has a hammer and a sickle painted in red, and they continue with one of their verbal duels that normally end up in an impasse.

“I would have preferred a cross,” Father Quixote said, “to eat under.” “What does it matter? Sancho replies. “The taste of the cheese will not be affected by cross or hammer. Besides, is there much difference between the two? They are both protests against injustice.”

Apart from Catholicism versus Communism, some of the other themes that Greene discusses in Monsignor Quixote are present in other of his books, such as papal infallibility, contraception, or Immaculate Conception. These general subjects embrace faith, hope, love or doubt. Spain is the best background for quiet reflection as it is a country that has always lived in a dilemma and in an endless search for an ideology, just as, throughout his life, Graham Greene did himself.

Publicado por Carlos Pranger en Costa de Almeria News. 14/09/2007