Monday, 26 September 2011

Pinkie the “damned”?


Many years ago I was writing an interminable novel so mind-numbing that it deserved a health warning. Word got out that this unpublished saga had a Catholic character who was a “baddie”.  A devout Irish Catholic took me aside one day after Mass and warned me: “If you’re not careful, you’ll be like that Graham Greene!” 
On another occasion I was working in a Catholic school when a Graham Greene novel was chosen for the GCSE syllabus. World War III broke out. Some concerned parents argued that students should never read Greene. They worried, in particular, that pupils would be led astray by the novel’s fallen characters.

But why hasn’t the debate on Greene and his Catholic characters been rekindled since the re-make of Brighton Rock was released on February 4th? And especially now as DVD copies of Brighton Rock glower at us from every shelf on Sainbury’s?

 Brighton Rock was the first of Greene’s “Catholic novels” and established his reputation as a Catholic novelist. Wrestling with that description in the introduction to the collected edition of Brighton Rock, Greene quoted from Blessed John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University: “If literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless literature of a sinful man.”
The most outstanding sinner in all Greene’s work is surely Pinkie Brown, the sadistic teenage gangster at the heart of Brighton Rock. From the very beginning of the novel Pinkie is desperate to prove his leadership skills with acts of shocking violence. He kills the gormless Hale so that he may avenge the previous leader of the protection racket mob.  But Pinkie is a juvenile hoodlum with a difference: he is a Catholic fixated on the punishment of hellfire that he is convinced awaits him. Pinkie’s calm certainty about the reality of hell as his final destination is deeply unsettling for the Catholic reader. He plunges ever deeper into depravity, slashing people with razors, murdering to cover up murders and almost pushing his young wife to suicide. He is not exactly the type of boy that Catholic girls dream of bringing home.

Pinkie is, in fact, an extreme example of an improperly catechised Catholic. According to John Paul II, the most important foundation for  practising the Catholic faith is that “in catechesis it is Christ, the Incarnate Word and Son of God, who is taught - everything else is taught with reference to Him”. The loving Christ must be the premise of all catechesis. Pinkie seems completely ignorant of his Saviour’s love for him.
Pinkie is not the only badly catechised Catholic in Brighton Rock. His wife, Rose, is another. Greene portrays her in her waitress uniform, with her rosary close at hand. If Pinkie had never crossed her path she would have stayed serving tea in Snow's Café. But she is intoxicated by the glamour of Pinkie’s evil and is fooled into marrying him.
The novel does not describe Pinkie and Rose’s catechism classes, but they were clearly lacking because of both of them are too preoccupied by the demonic and apparently unaware of God’s all-powerful love and protection.
When he is not abusing her, Pinkie offers Rose his own twisted catechesis. When they start courting he enlightens her as to why hell is real, when she is late for their wedding he snarls: “God damn her” and on their wedding night Pinkie informs her that they are committing a mortal sin by consummating their marriage because they have not married in the Church. OK – he’s not a fitting character for a Mills and Boon romance.

The novel reaches its most sinister point when Pinkie manoeuvres Rose into taking her own life. So sure is Rose of Pinkie’s love for her that she is willing to commit the ultimate sin. She will be a martyr for Pinkie’s sham love – because she does not know the love of Christ.
Ida Arnold, the true heroine of Brighton Rock, has little influence over the quietly headstrong Rose. When she accuses Rose of not knowing right from wrong we are given an insight into Rose’s formation as a Catholic. Greene says Rose’s taste for right and wrong was extinguished by the “stronger foods” of good and evil. Greene’s use of the metaphor “stronger foods” has its theological basis in St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where the Apostle writes of the need to give milk to “infants in Christ” and not “solid food”. Rose has obviously surfeited on “stronger foods” when she needed spiritual milk.
It can be irritating for Catholics that the superstitious, bawdy and irreligious Ida saves the day, arriving with the police before Rose can destroy herself. Ida believes in “ghosts, Ouija boards and tables that rapped” yet thinks it’s futile for Rose to go to Confession at the end of the novel. But then Ida and Pinkie have something in common: the concept of a compassionate God in heaven is essentially foreign to them.

It is the old priest at the end who knows this truth and is ready to comfort Rose with “the appalling strangeness of God’s mercy”. When Rose laments that she wishes she had killed herself for love of the “damned” Pinkie, the priest demonstrates God’s love in his gentleness towards Rose and confirms the truth that “the Church does not demand that we believe any soul is cut off from mercy”.
The old priest is like Padre Pio in that he tells Rose tenderly to “hope and pray”. It is the old priest who finally speaks the catechetical truths that have been gravely absent in the minds of the main characters.

I originally published most of the above in the January 29 edition of The Catholic Herald.

PS – The remake was directed by Rowan Joffe and set in the 1960s (the original novel is set in the 1930s). The new film, which stars Sam Riley, Andrea Riseborough, John Hurt and Helen Mirren, has different cultural resonances than the novel and plays off the radical atmosphere of that time.

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