Monsignor Quixote (1982) by Graham Greene

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I ‘borrowed’ this book from my dad a few months ago in preparation for a weekend trip to Madrid we were planning although, in the end, the holiday rolled round before I’d had chance to make much progress. I started reading back in March, two nights before our flight in fact, and then didn’t touch it again until about a week after our return so I can’t really say that it added a great deal to my cultural appreciation of Spain. However, it did tie in quite nicely with our happening upon the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho in Madrid’s Plaza de Espana while we were away. I’ve not actually read Don Quixote, and at this point I’d read very little of Monsignor Quixote, but I appreciated the timing all the same.

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This book is definitely a bit of a slow burner. Greene reimagines the Don Quixote story with a modern day priest, supposedly a descendant of the original Quixote, who embarks on an eventful journey across Spain in a banged out car with his friend ‘Sancho’, a dismissed Communist mayor. There are a few funny mishaps, they get in trouble along the way, attract the wrong kind of attention and ultimately end up pursued by the local police at the behest of the Monsignor’s horrified Bishop. All this drama serves as a backdrop against which the Monsignor and the Mayor discuss faith, doubt, God, Marx, politics, contraception and everything in between. Along the way they also eat some cheese and drink a lot of Manchegan wine.

Through the conversations between the Monsignor and his friend Greene explores faith and doubt, always two sides of the same coin in his eyes, suggesting that you can never really be a true believer in anything unless you are constantly plagued by doubt. As the Monsignor leaves the seclusion of his quiet village benefice behind him he’s increasingly given cause to struggle with his belief in God, and the moral values of the established church, just as Sancho’s admiration for his socialist heroes in the East are taking a similar knock. They have plenty to argue about and I found some of their discussions really interesting, especially those sparked by the priest’s naïve exploration of this new world (there’s a particularly funny bit with a ‘balloon’ he discovers in Sancho’s overnight bag). These discussions are well handled by Greene, I think, so that they’re challenging and interesting but not completely baffling or alienating for those of us who have never found anything much worth believing in. About mid-way through I found my interest starting to wane a little but I was sucked back in towards the end in time for some really poignant final scenes.

I don’t think Monsignor Quixote is like any of the other Graham Greene novels I’ve read, even though it does contain the obligatory moral wrangling that tends to be at the heart of some of them. If I’m very honest with myself I probably missed some of the grittiness of his earlier works and I expect that’s probably why I started to feel quite tired of all the talk. That said, I did really enjoy the ending and felt quite moved by this strange turn of events. It left me wondering how much of the Monsignor’s myth of himself I could believe and how far that line between the real and the imagined had been blurred in the course of his journey with Sancho. It felt like my own faith in this story was deliberately being challenged by the storyteller, which is quite bizarre when you think about it.

I finally finished Midnight’s Children in bed last night. Hurrah! Post coming soon…

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