MY TOP SHELF – 47

MONSIGNOR QUIXOTE

Bodley Head, 1982; rebound in quarter mustard morocco, with gold on mahogany title, and coloured boards.

For how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

The late Graham Greene was a fluent and prolific writer who was received into the Catholic Church.  Who better to write a soft, elegiac novel on the strains in the relationship between God and us?

Monsignor Quixote is a tribute to the first novel, Don Quixote, and it comes to us with the throwaway softness of the Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik of Mozart.  Its hero is promoted to Monsignor in ludicrous circumstances.  Like his namesake, he sets out on a quest.  His companion, whom he addresses as Sancho, is a former mayor who is a communist.  Their relationship is as full and touching as that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Father Quixote is a humble priest in El Toboso near Valencia.  He has a burned out little car, a Seat 600, that he calls Rocinante in memory of the horse of his ancestor.  He does not get on with his bishop, who asks how a priest could be descended from a fictional character.  ‘A character in a novel by an over-rated writer called Cervantes – a novel moreover with many disgusting passages which in the days of the Generalissimo would not even have passed the censor.’  The bishop, of course, has never read the book.  He just started the first chapter and glanced at the last – ‘my usual habit with novels’.  The bishop also takes the view – that we might find unusual in a Spaniard – that ‘men of Father Quixote’s class have no ancestors’.

Our hero was therefore full of trepidation when an Italian bishop pulled up in a flash Mercedes that was refusing to go any further.  But the Bishop of Motopo is very different.  He is offered lunch and ‘an unimportant wine’, and the bishop offers a reply for the ages:  ‘No wine can be regarded as unimportant, my friend, since the marriage of Cana.’  This bishop admires Don Quixote.  When told of the attitude of another bishop, he says:  ‘Holiness and literary appreciation don’t always go together.’

The father fixes the Mercedes – in truth he just puts some petrol in it.  The bishop is both moved and impressed, and the promotion follows later to the disgust of the bishop of the now Monsignor.  As the Italian bishop settles into his revived Mercedes, he says ‘there are no birds this year in last’s year’s nests’.  He confesses that he does not know what the words mean ‘but surely the beauty is enough’.

In his affront at the promotion of his lowly subordinate, the Spanish bishop decides that El Toboso is too small for a Monsignor and sends him out to the world.  And the Monsignor recalls the time when he had diverted an Easter offering to a charity for the poor in prison when the custom had been that the local priest had trousered that portion.  ‘The Bishop had called him a fool – a term which Christ had deprecated.’  Our author is not pulling punches.

The Monsignor and the ex-Mayor set out while swapping stories of traitors – Stalin and Judas.  The Mayor, after vodka, says that the Soviet cosmonauts have beaten the endurance record in space but in all that time they have not encountered a single angel.  Here is a sample of their conversation – this time with Manchegan cheese and wine.

‘A few million dead and Communism is established over nearly half the world.  A small price.  One loses more in any war.’

‘A few hundred dead and Spain remains a Catholic country.  An even smaller price.’

‘So Franco succeeds Torquemada?’

‘And Brezhnev succeeds Stalin?’

‘Well, father, we can at least agree with this: that small men seem always to succeed the great and perhaps the small men are easier to live with.’

‘I’m glad you recognise greatness in Torquemada.’

They laughed and drank and were happy under the broken wall while the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, until without noticing it they sat in darkness and the heat came mainly from within.

Again:

‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’

‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades.  I don’t mind calling you friend.  Friends are less apt to kill each other.’

We remember that Don Quixote is set around conversations between its two leads.  When our latterday pair arrives at Madrid, the Monsignor declines staying at the Palace Hotel to the disgust of the Mayor who then takes the Monsignor to the ecclesiastical tailors to get his purple socks.

His heart sank as he took in the elegance of the shop and the dark well-pressed suit of the assistant who greeted them with the distant courtesy of a church authority.  It occurred to Father Quixote that such a man was almost certainly a member of Opus Dei – that club of intellectual Catholic activists whom he could not fault and yet whom he could not trust.  He was a countryman, and they belonged to the great cities.

The svelte assistant offers cotton socks and the Monsignor says that he wears wool.  The assistant regards the two shoppers with ‘deepening suspicion’.  As they leave, the Monsignor says to the Mayor that the assistant was probably with Opus Dei and the Mayor says, ‘They probably own the shop’.

The two of them ‘killed’ two bottles of wine over lunch, and the Mayor recalled a discussion with Father Herrera who has been installed in his place, and who gets on with the bishop and who is looking to shaft the Monsignor.  Father Herrera had expressed a preference for the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It has, apparently, fifteen references to Hell.   The Monsignor says that ‘To govern by fear … surely God can leave that to Stalin or Hitler.  I believe in the virtue of courage.  I don’t believe in the virtue of cowardice’.  Sensing a kill for heresy, Father Herrera asks the Monsignor whether he questions the existence of Hell.

‘I believe from obedience, but not with the heart.’

The discussions of religious faith and political faith run deep.

‘We can’t always believe.  Just having faith, like you have, Sancho.  O, Sancho, Sancho, it’s an awful thing not to have doubts.  Suppose all Marx wrote was proved to be absolute truth and Lenin’s works too.’

Again:

‘And now you have a complete belief, don’t you?  In the prophet Marx.  You don’t have to think for yourself anymore.  Isaiah has spoken.  You are in the hands of future history.  How happy you must be with your complete belief.  There is only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’

Father Quixote spoke with an unaccustomed anger – or was it, he wondered, envy?

The Mayor leaves the Monsignor in ignorance to settle into a brothel for the night:

‘It’s really very wrong of me to laugh.  But I just thought:  what would the Bishop say if he knew?  A Monsignor in a brothel.  Well, why not? Christ mixed with publicans and sinners.  All the same, I think I’d better go upstairs and lock my door.  But be prudent, dear Sancho, be prudent.’

‘Where are you going, Father?’

‘Off to read myself to sleep with your prophet Marx.  I wish I could say goodnight to you, Sancho, but I doubt whether yours will be what I would call a good night.’

They had encounters with the Guardia as well as the hierarchy of the Church.  The Bishop has to confront the Monsignor with his scandalous misdeeds, such as being seen at a house of blue movies.

‘Stay where you are Monsignor’, the Bishop said.  (He rolled out the title Monsignor with an obvious bitterness.)  He took from his sleeve a white silk handkerchief and dusted the chair beside the bed, looked carefully at the handkerchief to see how far it might have been soiled, lowered himself into the chair and put his hand on the sheet.  But as Father Quixote was not in a position in which he could genuflect he thought it was permissible to leave out the kiss and the Bishop, after a brief pause, withdrew his hand.  Then the Bishop pursed his lips and following a moment’s reflection blew out the monosyllable:  ‘Well.’

Father Herrera was standing in the doorway like a bodyguard ….’

The Bishop says that ‘the Church always struggles to keep above politics’ but confirms that the shop assistant in Madrid was with Opus Dei.  But when the Monsignor says that Marx had defended the Church, the Bishop leaves in disgust saying that ‘I cannot sit here any longer and listen to the ravings of a sick mind’.

There is another exchange between the Mayor and the Monsignor on faith and doubt.

‘We quoted Marx and Lenin to one another like passwords to prove we could be trusted.  And we never spoke of the doubts which came to us on sleepless nights.  I was drawn to you because I thought you were a man without doubts.  I was drawn to you, I suppose, in a way by envy.’

‘How wrong you were, Sancho.  I am riddled by doubts.  I am sure of nothing, not even the existence of God, but doubt is not treachery as you communists seem to think.  Doubt is human.’

Their last adventure involves Mexicans who are fleecing the flock.  They carry out a plaster cast of Our Lady for the poor people to pin money to.

Father Quixote gazed up at the crowned head and the glassy eyes which were like those of a woman dead and neglected – no one had bothered even to lower her lids.  He thought:  Was it for this she saw her son die in agony?  To collect money?  To make a priest rich?

The Monsignor does not doubt that this is blasphemy:

‘Put down Our Lady.  How dare you’, he told the priest, ‘clothe her like that in money?  It would be better to carry her through the streets naked’

He starts ripping notes off and there is a fight and then a riot such as may have followed when another holy agitator evicted the money men from the temple.  The Mayor says, rather unhelpfully, that ‘You can’t start a revolution without bloodshed’.  (Earlier he had said that the ‘Trappists are the Stalinists of the Church’.)

The Monsignor is hurt and they seek sanctuary with the Trappists.  At the small monastery there is a Professor Pilbeam who comes from Notre Dame University in the US.  The Professor specialises in Descartes, who said that the mind is very separate from the body.  This turning point in European thought comes up just as we are getting ready for the soul of the Monsignor to leave his body.  But the Professor is only a nominal Catholic for whom Cervantes is ‘too fanciful for my taste’.

As our Don Quixote moves towards his end, he calls for Mambrino’s helmet and he says to the Mayor:  ‘I don’t offer you a governorship, Sancho.  I offer you a kingdom – Come with me and you will find the Kingdom.’  He recalls saying, as if in a dream, ‘Bugger the Bishop’.  ‘Et introibo ad altare.’  The Monsignor raises an invisible Host and says to Sancho:  ‘Companero, you must kneel Companero.’

Suffused in benevolence, the novel ends this way:

The Mayor didn’t speak again before they reached Orense; an idea quite strange to him had lodged in his brain.  Why is it that the hate of a man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

This all comes down to us apparently effortlessly, the work of a very refined mind and of a very gifted writer, a lilting and humane meditation on the place of doubt and faith in politics and religion, but more importantly on the place of friendship here on earth.

The novel is also a salute by an English writer to the place that Don Quixote holds in the life of Spain.  No other novel – not even War and Peace or Ulysses – stands so high in shaping the life of the nation that gave birth to its author.  Only the Iliad and Ulysses of Homer have reached so high.  But like all of the great works, this little novel is universal in its appeal.  There are very few books that end with a tear and a smile vying for eminence on the face of the reader.

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