The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The role of the narrator…

When narrating a book, a narrator has to decide how to interpret the various accents of different characters in the dialogue. This is crucial to allowing the reader to get lost in the book, and to being able to believe the placing of the characters in the social structure being portrayed in the book. The Power and the Glory is set in Mexico, and nearly all of the characters are Mexican. Therefore presumably they all speak Spanish or Mexican dialects. However, obviously, the book is written in English. So there are two choices open to the narrator: he can either give all of the Mexican characters appropriate Mexican accents, or he can give them all comparable English accents. (Of course, if the narrator and/or publisher were American, Canadian, Australian, Kiwi, etc., then it would make sense to give a range of the accents of those countries, but in this instance it’s an English author, and an English narrator.)

As an example, in the English-translation Maigret audiobooks, Gareth Armstrong chooses to give all of the characters appropriate English accents. If they are upper class he gives them a posh English accent. If they are working class he gives them a rougher London accent. If they don’t come from Paris he gives them a suitable regional English accent. This works very well. The only time he gives anyone a “foreign” accent is if the character is not French, and therefore would sound foreign to the French characters.

It would be equally logical, even if I feel it would be a little annoying, had he chosen to give all of the characters French accents. In order to do this effectively, he would obviously have to be able to give a range of French accents – educated, rural, working class, etc. – and I’m not sure many English speakers know enough about the range of French accents to catch the nuance of that. I certainly don’t.

Andrew Sachs as Manuel in Fawlty Towers

But it seems to me that the one choice a narrator can’t make, in these circumstances where every character is native to the setting of the book but the book is either written in or translated into English, is to give some of the characters English accents and some of the characters foreign accents. Where is the logic in that? And unfortunately that’s what Andrew Sachs has done in his narration of The Power and the Glory. Some of the characters, mostly the educated and/or powerful ones, sound English although they are Mexican, and then there’s a range of what I can only describe as caricatures of Mexican accents, mostly for the poor and downtrodden characters. I found it completely annoying and distracting and, dare I say, a touch condescending? But the point where I really began to wonder if I could take any more was when a mestizo character appears, and Sachs gives him an accent that at first I thought sounded very like Manuel from Fawlty Towers (not surprisingly since that is the “Spanish” accent that Andrew Sachs is most famous for), but then I realised that what it actually reminded me of was Calimero! This particular character whines quite often – “You’re going to leave me here to die, señor”, etc., – and I kept expecting him to finish every sentence with “It’s an injustice, it is, yeah!”

(If you don’t know Calimero, this is him – the most annoying cartoon character ever created, and as good an argument for eating chicken as I can think of.)

The result of this was that at no point did I connect with the book. If you’re a regular visitor you will know that Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists and, while I don’t think The Power and the Glory is his best book, I certainly think it’s a good one. But although I struggled past the mestizo and Calimero incident and listened to the end, I found the narration too distracting to allow me to enjoy the book. In all fairness I should say that many people have found this an excellent narration, though some other reviewers have made comments similar to (though less brutally rude than) my own.

Book 4 of 20

I wouldn’t normally review a narration rather than the book itself, but this is one of my #20(Audio)BooksOfSummer, so I had to say something about it 😉 One day I’ll re-read a paper copy, and review the book properly.

Audible UK Link

40 thoughts on “The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

  1. How frustrating! I have this waiting on my shelf in, thankfully, physical form and am looking forward to it. I agree about the importance of the narrator in choosing accents – I would definitely be put off by an audiobook where some but not all of the Mexican characters had Mexican accents. Especially if, as you have identified, the characters given accent cariacatures were all the poor or downtrodden ones!

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    • I definitely think of audiobooks more like film adaptations than books, and in a sense the narrator is the one who picks the cast. A good narrator can make a mediocre book great, but a poor narration can destroy a great book. Not that this was really a poor narration – it just didn’t work for me, kinda like sometimes the actor in a film just doesn’t feel right for the part they’re playing.

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    • Haha, lucky you! I used to say “It’s an injustice” quite a lot, in that accent, till I suddenly realised younger people had no idea who Calimero was and just thought I was mad! 😂

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  2. Oh, what a disappointment, FictionFan! I am sorry to hear this! I agree with you 100%, too, about the way to handle accents and language. It’s much easier, and allows the reader to immerse in the story better, if the narrator stays with one or the other of the choices you laid out. Either can make sense given the story. But that mixing? No. It makes me wonder what happens in cases where a book written in English is translated into (and then narrated in) Spanish, German, French, etc…

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    • It was such a pity because he was fine in all the non-dialogue bits. And I’ve actually just listened to him doing Silas Marner and he’s really good – no foreign accents to contend with! But when it’s a book like this then it seems to me to make sense to have all the characters have English accents – the Maigret narrations are excellent and work better, I think, than if he’d tried to make the characters sound French. Yes, that would be interesting! I’d love to hear what a foreign-language narrator would do with a Glaswegian accent! 😉

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    • I often wonder if there’s a director involved in audiobook narrations or if it’s all left up to the actor. I feel even a good actor sometimes needs some expert guidance on narration – it’s a different skill to normal acting.

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  3. TV series often do that. Upper class characters have Oxford accents, and working class characters have broad Northern accents, which is all a bit daft if the series is set in France or Italy!

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    • Ha, I was thinking that when I said that Gareth Armstrong uses regional accents in the Maigret books – it works because he does it subtly – none of the characters sound like Geordies, Brummies or Glaswegians! 😉

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  4. That’s a shame! The accent problem is one of the things that has put me off audiobooks in the past, though I probably just need to persevere in looking for ones with decent narrators. I do still want to try Graham Greene, who I’ve never read, but I don’t think I’ll be starting with this book anyway as there are others that appeal to me more.

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    • I find I’m really picky about narrations. It’s a bit like the casting in a film – the actor has to do more than read the book, they have to feel right for it, and sound as if they “get” it. But when I find an actor who works for me in a particular role – like Steven Crossley in the Shardlake books – then it can add a whole new dimension of pleasure. Graham Greene is great, though like all authors he can be variable – I hope you enjoy him when you get to him!

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  5. Calimero is new to me and pretty annoying! I’m glad I read this one rather than trying to do audio, and I’m sorry this “revisit” was such a disappointment. Good to see you back! (tennis must be wrapping up)

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    • Yup, tennis all over – for a while, anyway! 😀 Yes, I wish I’d read it rather than listening to it – I really struggle whenever a narrator doesn’t do a book the way I “hear” it in my head. Haha, I hated Calimero so much when I was a kid, whiny little chicken! And he hasn’t improved over time… 😉

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  6. Not familiar with Calimero, but I can see where that would get annoying FAST!! Sorry you didn’t get into this one, but I suspect I’d agree. Perhaps the paper copy wouldn’t be as much of “an injustice, yeah”?!!

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    • Haha, I hated Calimero so much when I was a kid and he really hasn’t improved over time! Yes, I’m sorry I listened to this one rather than reading it – I struggle really badly when a narrator doesn’t make the characters sound like they do in my head!

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    • Thanks, Laila! I find I’m really picky about narrations – the narrator has to make the characters sound like they do in my head or else I struggle really badly. And when they begin to sound like Calimero… well… 😉

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  7. I haven’t thought about Calimero for forty-plus years, but agree, chicken could be on the menu tonight.
    Sorry to hear the accents spoiled your enjoyment of the book, I was rather looking forward to your review of the actual story. Never mind, something to look forward to 🙂

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  8. Power and the Glory was my introduction to Greene. A brilliant. powerful novel. It’s sad that the narrator destroyed the book for you. I have never really warmed up to the idea of audio books.

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    • Mine too, many years ago when I was in school, and it made me a life-long fan of his books. That made the audio experience doubly disappointing. I definitely see audiobooks as more like film adaptations than books, which I think is why I’m so picky about the narration – it can feel like bad casting if the characters don’t sound the way they do inside my head.

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    • Haha, I wasn’t sure if many people would remember Calimero – I’ve spent decades trying to forget him! 😉 It’s always a pity when a narrator doesn’t work, especially on a book I knew I should be enjoying. It’s an injustice! Yeah!

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  9. Well, once again you’ve taken one for the team. You’d think that someone at the publisher would be vetting the voices before the recording. And that they would have found a native speaker or an expat who could do credible Mexican accents. I have a friend who used to do Spanish language audio books, and she was fabulous! But then she also spoke four languages fluently, so maybe it really takes someone with a good ear, if it’s not their own culture/language. That chick is excruciatingly annoying, by the way…..

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    • I honestly think this one would have worked better with no attempt to do accents at all, since it was written in English and Greene didn’t try to replicate dialect or speech patterns or anything. Sometimes if a narrator does a “foreign” accent I think it sounds quite accurate and then I read other reviews from people slamming it! And I often hate narrators’ attempts at Scottish accents and then find that non-Scottish reviewers think they’re great. It’s a minefield! As Calimero would say, it’s an injustice, it is, yeah! 😉

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  10. Interesting review! I don’t listen to audio books and realized reading this how authentic accents of the characters make a huge difference. I love Graham Greene and went through a time of chain reading his novels. The Power and the Glory wasn’t one of my favorites.

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    • I’m still working on being a real fan of audiobooks – some are great, but if the narration doesn’t match the voices in my head, it tends to throw me right out of the story. I’m also a big Graham Greene fan and am enjoying revisiting some favourites and filling in some blanks. This one was an unfortunate blip!

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  11. Oh yeah, this would be an annoying way to listen to a great novel! I’m not familiar with Andrew Sachs but it doesn’t sit well with me for a non-Mexican narrator to be doing Mexican accents, particularly ones that verge on caricatures.

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