Cervantics

Robert Taubman

  • Monsignor Quixote by Graham Greene
    Bodley Head, 221 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 370 30923 5

‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Perhaps rather carefully, the words at the head of Graham Greene’s new novel are ascribed to William Shakespeare rather than to Hamlet, but inevitably it’s Hamlet they bring to mind. Very Hamlet, this complete scepticism – but not, surely, very Graham Greene; and what has it to do with a novel on the theme of Don Quixote? Turgenev brought Hamlet and Don Quixote together, in an essay on the Russia of his time, in order to contrast the man who thinks like Hamlet and therefore cannot act, and the man impelled by his dreams to act like Don Quixote. But Greene doesn’t propose a contrast, and this is puzzling. Does he mean then to justify the Don in his delusions? Has Hamlet’s pyrrhonism become just a cue for freewheeling fantasy in the current fashion? Has Greene joined the Post-Modernists?

No. For the good reason that the hero of Monsignor Quixote certainly isn’t mad. He is so unlike the Don that this is virtually a Don Quixote without the Knight of La Mancha: a situation for comedy perhaps, and calling for ingenuity. And the vein is indeed that of bucolic comedy, though not of a kind that provides much to laugh at. The Quixote of this version is the humble parish priest of El Toboso, promoted monsignor against his will because a romantically-minded bishop wants to see him ‘go forth like your ancestor Don Quixote on the high roads of the world’. Forth he goes, accompanied by Sancho, the Communist mayor of his village. They travel in an ancient Seat 600, which is tended lovingly and called ‘my Rocinante’. Such correspondences with the famous original are many and various – some are as whimsical as this, some are serious and less obvious. One can take seriously the monsignor’s devotion to his favourite saints: St John of the Cross, St Theresa and St Francis de Sales provide him with the counter-part of the Don’s tales of chivalry. He falls asleep, and ‘all that he could remember after he had woken was that he had been climbing a high tree and he had dislodged a nest, empty and dry and brittle, the relic of a year gone by.’ This echoes the dying Don’s words in Cervantes: ‘There are no birds this year in last year’s nests.’

But it’s low comedy that dogs this Quixote in post-Franco Spain. He arouses the suspicions of the Guardia Civil and gravely offends his bishop. He is suspended from saying Mass and prescribed a long rest. Eminently sane, if ignorant of the ways of the world, he has the misfortune to be judged mad by others, especially by the Church authorities. Yet what he really displays is a holy innocence. In a hotel that turns out to be a brothel he takes the contraceptives provided to be balloons. Misled by the title of a film, A Maiden’s Prayer, he observes a display of soft porn with the detachment of a Martian lacking the basic information even to surmise what is happening. Much of the humour of these encounters with the world is risky, in the sense that, though the innocence is genuine, the comic materials are exceedingly well-worn: they include a bidet, ‘natural’ methods of contraception, a confession heard in a lavatory. Still, this rather disreputable brand of humour accords with the monsignor’s own lack of sophistication. And he rises above it. He profits from the cinema incident to meditate on his inexperience of human love, and the incomprehensibility of all love; he recognises a failure in himself in this respect. Failure in others, however, is something that draws him to them – it evokes his kind of love. Loving-kindness is as strong a trait as his innocence; it extends to an incompetent armed robber in a false moustache. ‘Poor fellow ... He was doomed to failure. I always feel that those who always fail – he even ran out of petrol – are nearer to God than we are.’ Respect for failure goes with a sympathy for disbelief, or half-belief, as if these are more precious, as well as more human, than dogma and doctrine. Half-belief is formally honoured in a visit to the tomb of Unamuno in Salamanca, but doubts may occur at any time: ‘How is it that when I speak of belief, I become aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief?’ and ‘I am riddled by doubts. I am sure of nothing, not even of the existence of God ... Oh, I want to believe that it is all true – and that want is the only certain thing I feel.’ The monsignor amuses and scares himself with the thought of how terrible it would be to know for certain, and to have no need for belief. It comes up in roadside discussions with his Communist friend – these take the place of the digressions and stories in Don Quixote – in which there is much chummy banter, and ideological differences give way to respect for each other’s beliefs and half-beliefs: the Trinity symbolised in their wine bottles, the parable of the Prodigal Son retold with a new ending, The Communist Manifesto highly regarded by both sides, though for different reasons.

But disbelief or half-belief in a Don Quixote? For the monsignor lacks the Don’s capacity for belief very much as Mr Jones, the hero of Greene’s last novel, was lacking a hand – a qualification for entering Greene’s band of the saintly disabled, but not for a knight going out to battle. So the monsignor has no great battles, even in imagination: he only goes so far in his sympathies and behaviour as to get himself in wrong with the authorities. And anyway he rejects the role:

Why are you always saddling me with my ancestor? ... 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.

This is a great loss. A true Don Quixote in his splendid madness offers scope for satire, not just for whimsy. Richard Graves’s The Spiritual Quixote, a predecessor of Greene’s novel and a feeble one, though now among the Oxford English Novels, at least made appropriate use of its Don as a means of satirising Methodism. And missing this, one misses what satire might have provided – a searching account of modern Spain, some perception of current affairs and real political issues: but on such matters the novel is gentle to the point of blandness. Nor is there a trace here of that Don Quixote who, from Cervantes on, in literature and especially art, has become a symbolic figure, representative of ‘the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation’. Those words happen to be Graham Greene’s, in his recent Ways of Escape, where he remarks that writing itself is one of the ways of escape from what he has in mind. He might have written Monsignor Quixote to illustrate this remark.

Luckily there’s more to it than that. There’s irony in the novel, and it’s more subversive than at first appears. Of course the monsignor isn’t mad – the point is that he’s found mad by others. If the Church disowns him, the Guardia pursue him and the respectable are outraged, this only vouches for his soundness and authenticity. For what Greene has done is to reverse the premise of the old story: the opposite of Don Quixote, his hero is a lonely sane man in a badly disturbed world. And remembering that in Ways of Escape Greene wrote of finding himself as a writer ‘in that tragi-comic region of La Mancha where I expect to stay’, one sees that the Don figure in this book isn’t really the old monsignor, but is Greene himself – choosing this way of tilting at what seem to be giants, in order to expose them as mere windmills. In the disguise of a Cervantes pastiche he assembles here a whole collection of his familiar themes and images. One discovers in the picaresque the old conjunction of religion with the wanted man, the shabby and disreputable, and despair: ‘he felt no gratitude for his escape, perhaps he would have been able to feel a little gratitude if a bullet had struck him – this is the end.’ There are the traits here of the Greene who declines the role of ‘Catholic novelist’, finds nothing unsympathetic in atheism, and is uneasy with establishments and authority. His monsignor is no great theologian, but he can win most arguments:

  ‘I believe in the virtue of courage. I don’t
believe in the virtue of cowardice.’
  ‘A child has to be educated through discipline.
And we are all children, monsignor.’
  ‘I don’t think a loving parent would educate by fear.’
  ‘I hope this is not what you teach your parishioners.’
  ‘Oh, I don’t teach them. They teach me.’

He especially values failure, or believes that God does; and knows more about the difficulty of belief than about conviction. He wonders if he is incapable of feeling human love, for he fears indifference, and suspects it in himself – but unnecessarily, since the thought of it is the one thing in the book that ‘pierced him to the heart’. He might be a summing-up of values and attitudes in a lot of Greene novels. And this is a man to be honoured. To disguise him here as an unsuccessful Don Quixote is Greene’s own quixotic gesture: his way of affirming these values contra mundum.

There’s one difference, however. Hell, which used to be such a feature of the Greene moral landscape, has disappeared from La Mancha. The monsignor almost, if not quite, disbelieves in Hell – ‘I believe from obedience, but not with the heart.’ He admires the Gospel of St John for omitting all reference to it. The story ends with an adroitly staged celebration of the gospel of love, combined with the most tenuous possible definition of belief. Sancho realises his true love for Monsignor Quixote only after the dying Quixote has given him communion. There are theological voices in the monastery where this occurs which are sceptical about the communion. Quixote was, on this occasion, really out of his mind, and only imagined he was saying the Mass that had been forbidden by authority. But he stood at the altar, until he collapsed and died, and with imaginary bread and wine gave communion to Sancho. Or he believed he did, which is enough for Father Leopoldo, a student of Descartes, though not for a visiting professor from Notre Dame University: ‘There was no Host and no wine.’ ‘Descartes, I think, would have said rather more cautiously than you that he saw no bread or wine.’ ‘You know as well as I do that there was no bread and no wine.’ So here the Hamlet quotation comes in useful, helping to make the point of the ending. According to Hamlet, the meaning of the monsignor’s action would be whatever he believed it to be, since no better authority, such as God, is available to give a ruling. This isn’t much to say for a belief: but Greene hasn’t made any great claims for his Quixote or his faith, and uses him here simply to illustrate a minimum premise for belief. Maybe what seemed to others to be a delusion was actually true, just as the monsignor thought it was; and the effect on Sancho would be evidence to justify this. But that’s not the point, for the story isn’t concerned with evidence – only with justifying a belief on the truly quixotic grounds that it’s all in the mind.