One of the insights I have gained from reading Greene is that we do not see eye to eye when it comes to being fascinated by religion. It is a topic that holds little interest for me. Unfortunately, Monsignor Quixote is very much focused on the “religious”.
I’m describing the topic the “religious” because at the heart of the book is a dialogue between Monsignor Quixote, a Spanish priest, and Sancho, who used to be the major of the Monsignor’s home town. Sancho is a communist whose faith in Marx, Engels, and Lenin is as strong as the Monsignor’s in the holy trinity.
What Greene sets out to do is to throw both characters together on a journey through Spain in the same manner that Cervantes did with his characters.
In the process, Quixote and Sancho discuss different aspects of life from the Catholic and the communist angles – sometimes with humorous outcomes:
“What puzzles me, friend, is how you can believe in so many incompatible ideas. For example, the Trinity. It’s worse than higher mathematics. Can you explain the Trinity to me? It was more than they could do in Salamanca.’
‘I can try.’
‘You see these bottles?’
‘Two bottles equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and it was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They’re inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three.’
‘I was never even in Salamanca able to see the point of the Holy Ghost. He has always seemed to me a bit redundant.’
‘We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn’t have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn’t have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit.’
No question, Greene does create a satirical, well written discourse. However, the topics of conversation and the patterns of conversation get repetitive very quickly – revolving around the wine, purple socks, and for some reason there seems to be a lot of discussion of birth control.
Having progressed to about the half-way point, I had my fill of circular discussions and even the odd self-reverential mention of the “whisky priest” (featured in Greene’s The Power and the Glory), and skimmed through the rest of the book.
I’m glad I did. I love Greene’s work but not even for him will I sit through something that is not only dull and moving at snail’s pace but also utterly unoriginal.
Unoriginal not because Greene is re-imagining the characters and plot of Cervantes’ work but unoriginal because I grew up watching a series of films featuring a Catholic priest called Don Camillo quarrelling with a communist mayor called Peppone – which really is exactly the same plot as Greene’s.
The Don Camillo stories were created by Italian author Giovannino Guareschi (1908–68), and are highly entertaining. Unlike Greene, Guareschi’s characters (at least in the film versions) do not dwell on religious or political theory but focuses on the humanity that both characters, priest and mayor, try to encourage in their respective flocks.
(Gino Cervi as Peppone and Fernandel as Don Camillo)
1* (out of 5*)