Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Rereading Monsignor Quixote

It was in 1988 that I read Graham Greene for the first time. And the novel was Monsignor Quixote. I have since read almost all the novels of Greene, but, in 1988, I didn’t quite know what kind of writer Greene was. All the same, I was as fascinated by the “adventures” of Monsignor Quixote, who seemed a modern counterpart of his illustrious ancestor, Don Quixote, in Miguel de Cervantes’s novel of the same name, as I felt stimulated by the food for thought Greene offered in the novel. It was this novel which led me to the other novels of Greene, especially The Power and the Glory, and a couple of biographies of Greene, the most sensational among them being Michael Sheldon’s The Man Within.  It was a pleasure to read Monsignor Quixote again after about a quarter century last week, and I thought I must write about it here.

But, before I write about Monsignor Quixote, let me give an account of what happens in its 407-year-old literary forebear, Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. Since it was first published in Spanish on January 16, 1605, the book, acclaimed as the world's "first modern novel" and the "first best-seller", has been translated into more than 60 languages.  Throughout these 400-odd years, the novel has been avidly read in different languages by the young and the old alike, and its hero, Don Quixote, "the Knight of the Doleful Countenance", and his little squire, Sancho Panza, have remained two of the most fascinating characters in all fiction.

Misguided by books on knight-errantry, Quixada, a lantern-jawed and lanky Spanish gentleman of about fifty, decides to become a knight-errant.  He clambers into an old, creaky suit of armour.  A barber's bowl serves as a helmet.  A pitiful beast, all skin and bones, which he names Rocinante, is his steed.  The name Quixada will no longer do; he calls himself Don Quixote de La Mancha!  The "knight" is all set to go forth in quest of adventure, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress.

Two things, however, are still missing.  A knight needs a fair lady to be in love.  Quixote soon finds one in a farm-girl to whom he gives the name "Dulcinea del Toboso".  Next, he needs to be knighted.  He achieves it under comic circumstances.  He arrives at an inn, which he imagines is a castle, and attacks a pair of muleteers there.  When he wins that ridiculous battle, the landlord "knights" him to get rid of him. 

On his first "expedition", Don Quixote launches an attack on a group of taunting merchants.  Unfortunately, Rocinante stumbles and falls, leaving the knight to roll away.  The merchants break his lance into several bits and beat him with them. 

After two weeks' rest, the gallant knight sets out on another expedition with a simple yokel called Sancho Panza accompanying him as a squire.  Soon, they come across a number of windmills which Don Quixote imagines are giants.  He charges at them.  But his lance sticks into a spinning sail and he gets hurled across the plain.  Never one to accept defeat, Quixote alleges that an evil spirit which did not want to see his victory has in the last moment changed the giants into windmills!  After several such misadventures, the armoured lunatic and his unquestioning squire return home, battered and bleeding.

Soon, Quixote sets off on yet another expedition – the third and the last.  The entire second part of the novel is devoted to his comic adventures on the third expedition at the end of which Quixada dies – but not before realizing that he is not a knight after all.  Before his death, he bequeaths his estate to his young niece, but adds a word of caution in the will: 'She should marry a man of whom she has first had evidence that he does not even know what books of chivalry are.'

Don Quixote is one of the masterpieces of world literature.  Miguel de Cervantes, the genius who produced this work, is now well-known and honoured all over the world.  But when he died about a decade after the novel had been published, he died in utter poverty and was given a pauper’s funeral.

Now, Graham Greene’s Monsignor Quixote. Set in Spain, the novel recounts the adventures of a humble Roman Catholic priest who, in a characteristic confusion of fact and fiction, believes that he is a descendent of Don Quixote, "the Knight of the Doleful Countenance."

In a comic turn of events, Father Quixote, living in his parish in El Toboso, gets promoted to the rank of Monsignor. This happens thanks to an Italian bishop who, when stranded by the breakdown of his car in El Toboso, has been much impressed by Father Quixote’s ability to fix his car – by simply discovering that the car has run out of petrol!  When the letter of promotion arrives from the Vatican, Father Quixote’s bishop, who has long since dismissed Fr Quixote as nothing short of an idiot, is outraged. At Father Quixote’s request, he grants him leave of absence and sends a young priest, Father Herrera, to replace the old priest in the parish. Monsignor Quixote sets out in the company of the Communist ex-Mayor of El Toboso, whom he calls Sancho, in the former’s old Fiat, which he calls Rocinante after his ancestor’s steed. Also accompany them on this “adventurous” journey are a few cases of the local wine, adequate amounts of cheese and sausage, books like St. Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa (which correspond to Don Quixote’s old books of chivalry), a work by Father Heribert Jone on moral theology, which is frequently referred to in the novel in the discussions between the priest and the mayor, and a copy of The Communist Manifesto.

At the very beginning of the journey, there is an interesting argument about the Holy Trinity. Father Quixote attempts to explain it, using the wine bottles they have recently emptied as illustrations.  Before long, he realizes that he has committed the sin of heresy because he allocated two full-sized bottles to the Father and the Son and only a half-bottle to the Holy Spirit!

Greene packs the novel with several "adventures" many of which are reminiscent of those in Cervantes’s novel.  For instance, when the priest and the ex-mayor incur the wrath of Guardia Civil, the mayor compares the state police to the windmills with whom the knight tilted. Similarly, when Father Quixote helps a robber escape the Guardia, the reader is reminded of the Don’s freeing of the galley slaves.

The “adventures” of Monsignor Quixote reach the ears of his bishop who is scandalized by the priest’s association with a known Communist, Father Quixote's run-ins with the Guardia Civil and his stay in a brothel, which the innocent priest thought was a very friendly hotel. The bishop concludes that Father Quixote has gone mad, and arranges for him to be abducted and brought back to El Toboso where he is kept locked in his own room. The mayor, however, comes back and helps him escape (the escape itself is comic: even as the mayor makes desperate attempts to break the door open, the priest simply jumps out through the window!) The rest of the novel is about their escape from El Toboso and their further adventures concluding with the performance of a hallucinatory mass by Father Quixote and his death.

A convert to Catholicism as well as one attracted towards Marxism, Greene, was however, evidently uneasy about the submission to authority both of them (Catholicism and Marxism) demanded and seemed to favour heterodoxy. Some of his so-called Catholic novels – ‘Catholic? Nonsense. Greene was, if anything, anti-Catholic, and so are his novels!’ Sheldon, his biographer, would say  – skirt heresy: the whisky priest finding sin “fascinating” in The Power and the Glory and the apparent sanctioning of Scobie’s suicide in The Heart of the Matter are just two instances.  In an interesting passage in Monsignor Quixote, the mayor who, like Graham Greene himself, cannot resist feminine charm, asks Father Quixote, who is unmoved by women, whether he has never been troubled by sexual desires. ‘Never,’ says the priest. ‘You are a lucky man,’ says the mayor. 'Am I?’ the priest questions himself. ‘Or am I the most unfortunate?  ... How can I pray to resist evil when I am not even tempted? ...’  And he prays: ‘O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference.'  In all his novels, Greene shows great understanding of – and sympathy towards – human weakness.

‘A devastating blend of humour and sharp insight,’ said New Statesman when the novel was published in 1982. I couldn’t agree more.

Monsignor Quixote is the last of the fourteen novels I have read during this vacation. The vacation is, alas, coming to an end. Having accepted invitations to run two ELT workshops in the second week of June, I must now brace myself for the task. How I wish I had more time to read fiction!


  1. Informative with personal view. Thank you, sir.

    1. Thank you, Anil. Graham Greene is one of my favourite writers, but you can't do justice to Greene if you read him fast, misled by the thrilling episodes in his novels. Monsignor Quixote is different: you can read it fast and entertain yourself. The man -- Graham Greene, I mean -- was a genius. I have but one regret: he missed the Nobel Prize.