Graham Greene and the Holy Spirit

Pentecost, commemorating the Holy Spirit and the ability to “speak in tongues”, recalls Greene’s Mon

This Sunday is Pentecost, a day on which Christians commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles while they were celebrating the Jewish festival of Shavuot.

As the gift of tongues suddenly enabled them to speak in many different languages, malicious observers said it was just drunken babbling (a claim that St Peter answered, saying that in fact it was the fulfilment of a prophecy from the Book of Joel).

This made me think of how Graham Greene dealt with the Holy Spirit, a rather tricky and elusive entity, and, indeed, the subject of wine, in his 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote. Some readers may remember the charming Thames Television film adaptation, in which Alec Guinness played the innocent, other-worldly Monsignor Quixote and Leo McKern the communist ex-mayor of their little village who travels across Spain with him to buy the purple bib and socks that go with the rank to which the priest has just been elevated.

The pair stop for the evening at an abandoned farm, and sit by a wall eating sausage and drinking rather a lot of Manchegan wine. Sancho, the ex-mayor, asks his friend to explain the mystery of the Trinity to him. I'm going to quote the passage at length, as Greene is often thought of as being tormented by his Catholicism, but this shows his playful side.

"You see these bottles?" [says Monsignor Quixote.] "Two bottles equal in size. The wine they contained was of the same substance and was born at the same time. There you have God the Father and God the Son and there, in the half-bottle, God the Holy Ghost. Same substance. Same birth. They're inseparable. Whoever partakes of one partakes of all three."

"I was never even in Salamanca able to see the point of the Holy Ghost," [says Sancho.] "He has always seemed to me a bit redundant."

"We were not satisfied with two bottles, were we? That half-bottle gave us the extra spark of life we both needed. We wouldn't have been so happy without it. Perhaps we wouldn't have had the courage to continue our journey. Even our friendship might have ceased without the Holy Spirit."

"You are very ingenious, friend. I begin at least to understand what you mean by the Trinity. Not to believe in it, mind you. That will never do."

Father Quixote sat in silence looking at the bottles. When the Mayor struck a match to light a cigarette he saw the bowed head of his companion. It was as though he had been deserted by the Spirit he had praised. "What is the matter, father?" he asked.

"May God forgive me," Father Quixote said, "for I have sinned."

"It was only a joke, father. Surely your God can understand a joke."

"I have been guilty of heresy," Father Quixote replied. "I think -- perhaps -- I am unworthy to be a priest."

"What have you done?"

"I have given wrong instruction. The Holy Ghost is equal in all respects to the Father and the Son, and I have represented Him by this half-bottle."

"Is that a serious error, father?"

"It is anathema. It was condemned expressly at I forget which Council. A very early Council. Perhaps it was Nicaea."

"Don't worry, father. The matter is easily put right. We will throw away and forget this half-bottle and I will bring a whole bottle from the car."

"I have drunk more than I should. If I hadn't drunk so much I would never, never have made that mistake. There is no sin worse than the sin against the Holy Ghost."

"Forget it. We will put the matter right at once."

So it was they drank another bottle . . .

Perfect. And if you get the chance to see the film version you'll see both Guinness and McKern make the most of Greene's gentle meditation on bewilderment and faith. Not one of his most celebrated books, for sure, but still a latter-day reflection "of the master's long-standing preoccupation with doom, pity and the inscrutability of God's will", as the New York Times put it.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain