Monsignor Quixote

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Though he dislikes the label, Graham Greene is often considered a Catholic novelist, meaning not only that he is a Catholic who writes novels but also that the novels themselves often derive their drama from tensions brought about by Catholic faith and doctrine. Greene himself has been a Catholic convert for more than fifty years. Yet, the image he gives of the Church and its faith is often a bleak one, the antithesis of such sentimental treatments as the 1944 motion picture Going My Way or Henry Morton Robinson’s The Cardinal (1950). Belief is not an easy condition for readers of Greene: they experience a spiritual malaise more often than joy. The priests in Greene’s fiction are often less than edifying: the nameless and reluctant martyr in The Power and the Glory (1940), a book that was on the Index, is a whiskey priest who has fathered an illegitimate child; the priests running a Congolese leper colony in A Burnt-Out Case (1961) have “the grace of aridity”; Father Rivas in The Honorary Consul (1973) has abandoned the church for revolution. Many of Greene’s characters are lapsed, or at best nominal, Catholics.

In Monsignor Quixote, however, not only is the protagonist a priest, but he is also a wholly admirable, even lovable character. Monsignor Quixote is a departure from the characteristic Graham Greene novel and offers a welcome change of pace. The usual Greene fiction has the ingredients of a thriller—situations of physical and spiritual danger, often in exotic locations—as well as the more substantial qualities of psychological and intellectual depth. Greene’s characteristically tense narratives generate considerable suspense. By contrast, Monsignor Quixote is relaxed, humorous, comparatively cheerful, and positively benign. Greene has always had a sense of humor, but he usually reserves it for minor details, such as the Maltesers or Buller’s slobbering in The Human Factor (1978); only in Our Man in Havana (1958), Travels with My Aunt (1969), The Return of A. J. Raffles (1975), and some of the short stories does the humor predominate. Monsignor Quixote joins this company.

It is a more substantial work than Greene’s last fiction, Dr. Fischer of Geneva: Or, The Bomb Party (1980), a provocative but minor novella of chilling despair. Unlike those Greene protagonists who hold life at arm’s length, Monsignor Quixote embraces it with innocent delight. A descendant of Miguel de Cervantes’ hero, Father Quixote of El Toboso (the reader never learns his first name) has spent his sixty or so years without notable incident in a village where nothing much happens—a village that has as its only claim to fame the fact that it was the home of Don Quixote’s idealized Dulcinea. “A trap for tourists,” mutters the bishop, who never reads novels and who is perpetually exasperated with Father Quixote for no particular reason except that the latter is a naïf whose relaxed approach to matters offends the bureaucratic bishop. “Bugger the bishop,” mutters Father Quixote in a moment of truth. If the bishop had his way, Father Quixote would have an early retirement. “How can he be descended from a fictional character?” asks the repressive bishop, dismissing both him and his distinguished ancestor. Toward the end of the novel, a professor visiting from the University of Notre Dame expresses similar impatience with fiction; facts are the only meat for him, but Father Leopoldo, head of a Trappist monastery, insists that one cannot distinguish fact from fiction with any certainty.

This dilemma is not merely a bit of whimsy but is central to the novel’s concern with faith, belief, miracles, the historicity of Scripture, the nature of the Trinity and of the Sacraments. Despite his simple heart, Father Quixote has as much doubt as belief. “It’s human to doubt,” he insists, thanking God for doubt, for a religion without it, without ambiguity, has “no room for faith at all.” A dream of Christ descending from the Cross before the agony of the Crucifixion, without the death and Resurrection, acclaimed in triumph by a world that knows with certainty that He is the Son of God, afflicts Father Quixote as a terrifying nightmare, and he prays that his friend Sancho may also be saved from belief.

Sancho is Enrique Zancas, the former Mayor of El Toboso and a Communist whose faith is in Karl Marx and V. I. Lenin. They, at least, were historical beyond a doubt. So was Joseph Stalin, who was to the Communist Party what Judas was to the Apostles or Torquemada to the Church. Sancho and Father Quixote are old friends, tolerant of each other’s dogmas, who agree to disagree. Much of the novel consists of amicable debates between them.

Though the novel moves along rapidly, there is comparatively little plot. Father Quixote offers hospitality to a stranded Italian bishop of Motopo, who is so smitten with the Manchegan wine and horsemeat steak of his host and so pleased when the priest fixes his car (it had run out of gas and merely needed a refill) that he arranges for the Vatican to promote him to monsignor, much to the disgust of his local bishop. Made to feel unwanted by the bishop, Monsignor Quixote requests a leave of absence, and—accompanied by the town’s former Mayor—sets out on a series of aimless travels. Their vehicle is an ancient Seat 600, which Monsignor Quixote has nicknamed Rocinante, in honor of the Don’s emaciated horse. Rocinante has to be humored and nursed along and becomes a major character in the novel. Indeed, the car seems alive to its owner, who is concerned for its comfort and retirement years.

Like Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), the novel is picaresque in structure, consisting of the wandering adventures of the modern Quixote and Sancho. The Monsignor is not a knight errant; his books of chivalry are the lives of saints and the devotional works of St. Francis de Sales. He is not about to tilt with windmills and challenge all comers; indeed, he is more timid than otherwise. It is his faith itself that seems Quixotic in a modern, materialistic world. Yet like other Graham Greene protagonists, he is “aware always of a shadow, the shadow of disbelief haunting my belief.” To Sancho, he confesses that he is “riddled by doubts. I am sure of nothing, not even of the existence of God; but doubt is not treachery as you Communists seem to think. Doubt is human. Oh, I want to believe that it is all true—and that want is the only certain thing I feel. I want others to believe too. . . .” If his faith has its ambiguities, so did that of Don Quixote, according to the Monsignor, who says his ancestor did not really believe in Amadis of Gaul and the other heroes of romance. They were fictitious even to the Don; what he did believe in was the chivalric ideal, just as Monsignor Quixote clings to the Christian ideal.

He is not, however, a purist, let alone a Puritan, and is all too ready to forgive human failings—a tolerance which is a major irritant to his bishop. The Bishop of Motopo, on the other hand, says, “I would like you to go forth like your ancestor Don Quixote on the high roads of the world. . . .” “He was a madman, monsignor,” replies Father Quixote, to which the Bishop observes, “So many said of Saint Ignatius.”

Eager to get rid of him, his...

(The entire section is 3042 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

America. CXLVII, November 13, 1982, p. 298.

The Atlantic. CCL, November, 1982, p. 165.

Commonweal. CIX, November 5, 1982, p. 598.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 26, 1982, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, September 19, 1982, p. 1.

Newsweek. C, September 20, 1982, p. 90.

Time. CXX, September 20, 1982, p. 74.

Times Literary Supplement. October 8, 1982, p. 1089.