Monsignor Quixote – Graham Greene

A vine is alive like a flower or a bird. It is not something made by man – man can only help it to live – or to die,’ he added with a deep melancholy, so that his face lost all expression. He had shut his face, as a man shuts a book which he finds he doesn’t wish to read.

An well meaning and unexpected promotion sends the humble Monsignor Quixote on a collision course with his Bishop, and he takes leave and drives across Spain in his old car ‘Rocinate’ with his good friend the ex-mayor, his Sancho Panza. Greene cleverly plays in this, re-writing the Cervantes classic, but at the same time acknowledging it within the story, the referring to the original Quixote as the Monsignor’s ancestor throughout was a playful touch, particularly as it enrages the antagonistic Bishop.

As the Monsignor and the Communist ex-mayor road trip across Spain, protected almost in equal parts by Quixote’s innocence and naivety and the Panza’s more practical and worldly nous, they explore each other’s beliefs, gently probing and teasing, with the tacit understanding of the fundamental differences between their two ideologies. What draws them closer, apart from the endless supply of manchegan wine, is the doubts they both share in the infallibility of what they hold dear. Quixote suffers terribly, in the way that Greene’s protagonists seem to do, with his own inadequacies, both in the church, and in life, as his travels expand his horizons well beyond El Toboso. Later, when he aids the thief, it is almost with a bewildered, cheeky delight that he tells Sancho.

Despite the intimate conversations between the two friends, Monsignor Quixote is shot through with dry humour, the moment when Quixote discovers his steak is horsemeat is a brilliant example of the simple humour that Greene wields so effectively

He explained the situation in which he had found the bishop.
‘But the steak ..’ Teresa said.
‘What about the steak?’
‘You can’t give the Bishop horsemeat.’
‘My steak is horsemeat?’
‘It always has been. How can I give you beef with the money you allow me?’

There are still touching moments between Quixote and Sancho, as they grow their friendship by gently pushing back the boundaries of their faiths, until they have small patches of common ground, meanwhile the Bishop and Father Herrera lightly scheme in the background, impotently outraged at Quixote’s promotion to Monsignor.

Despite being hauled back to El Toboso, Quixote once again hits the road in Rocinate, with Sancho faithfully by his side, but his horizons are expanded too far, and the innate sense of what is right and just, and how the church should act and be treated is tested and he perhaps becomes the Monsignor he was all along.

As my Green collection grows I find I am loving the sheer readability of his novels, particularly the comedies, that produce genuine laugh’s, while at the same time containing poignant pictures of life. Yet, despite the surface simplicity, Greene always seem to paint a bright picture that delights and amuses.

‘Dreaming or delirium?’ Father Leopoldo wondered.
Sancho said, ‘I seem to remember …’
‘You have no right to burn my books, Excellency. The sword, I beg you, not death by pin stabs.’
There was a short period of silence, then, ‘A fart,’ Father Quixote said, ‘can be musical.’
‘I fear,’ Father Leopoldo whispered, ‘that he is in a worse state than the doctor told us.’

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