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Book Review: The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads, Penguin Classics edition, 2006 (originally published in 1939), 240 pgs.

The Lawless Roads is as much a reflection on sin, and on how every human is inescapably marked by it, as it is a travel account of Graham Greene’s trip to Mexico in 1938. It’s also a reflection on borders — both physical and metaphysical — and how crossing these boundaries impacts and transforms the individual.

The Longman publishing company commissioned Greene’s trip to Mexico, during which he was to explore the persecution of Catholics, and the lasting consequences of the violent anticlerical repression of the interwar period.  The Church was suppressed to varying degrees in the different states, with the harshest conditions existing in Tabasco, ruled by Governor Tomas Canabal. The common thread in Greene’s observations on Britain, the United States and Mexico is how the grotesque, the ugly and evil draw in humans in everyone. While Greene’s trip to Mexico is precipitated by the violent anti-Catholic persecution of the interwar period, and specifically the execution of Jesuit priest Miguel Pro in 1927 under the rule of President Plutarco Elías Calles, the author also makes clear that every society has a dark shadow — including British society.

This travel record reveals as much if not more about the nature of Greene’s Catholic faith life than it does about Mexico itself. Crossing borders also takes Greene on an interior journey. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t offer rich insights into life and landscapes in interwar Mexico. It does — especially through Greene’s masterfully evocative, yet precise prose. But given that Greene was near the beginning of his prolific writing career when The Lawless Roads was published (he was 35 years old), and considering how seminal his Catholicism was to his fiction, there’s value in reading this book for its religious reflections.

Greene’s views on culture and society mingle intimately with his religiosity. He’s an Englishman with a dark view of American capitalism and what he perceives as American crassness. The trope of the “loud American” is present in this book. He also sees the world, at least to a degree, through a lens of British dominance and cultural superiority. Yet there is enough nuance, critique and self-awareness in Greene that it would be inaccurate to portray him as little else than a blind colonialist. Most critically, however, this travel account provides context and depth to what I would consider Greene’s masterpiece — the 1940 novel The Power and the Glory. And there are loud echoes of The Lawless Roads in The Heart of the Matter as well.

The sin and lawlessness both begin back home in the United Kingdom. Fleeting memories show how the seeds of Greene’s faith came to him as a child, whenever he escaped the grim and cruel life of British boarding schools — a life that he likened to torturous imprisonment. Greene’s father worked as headmaster at the Berkhamsted School and, as such, the Greene family lived on campus. He would escape across the school’s border, leaving behind an abusive environment, and find safety and freedom in the outdoors. His description of the school ought to give us pause:

Appalling cruelties could be practised without a second thought; one met for the first time characters, adult and adolescent, who bore about them the genuine quality of evil. There was Collifax, who practised torments with dividers; Mr. Cranden with three grim chins, a dusty gown, a kind of demoniac sensuality…I escaped surreptitiously for an hour at a time; unknown to frontier guards. I stood on the wrong side of the border looking back — I should have been listening to Mendelssohn, but instead I heard the rabbit restlessly cropping near the croquet hoops. It was an hour of release — and also an hour of prayer. One became aware of God with an intensity — time hung suspended — music lay on the air…And so faith came to me — shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell, but for a long time it was only hell I could picture with a certain intimacy — the pitch-pine partitions of dormitories where everybody was never quiet at the same time; lavatories without locks…

The hell that Greene witnessed shaped his outlook on life. It led him to believe that despair and evil always lurked in the background of human experience. Perhaps the evil became more visible when viewed from across the border — distance, allowing as it often does, for greater perspective.

This book isn’t a Manichean allegory about the light of an “advanced” European nation versus the “darkness” of a backward, non-western nation — even though Greene provides an unflattering depiction of Mexico and of many Mexicans. And Greene’s boarding school memory isn’t the only detail to push aside a dichotomous view of the world. Now with adult eyes, Greene shares what he sees of despair in Britain: “in a midland city, riding on trams in winter past the Gothic hotel, the super-cinema, the sooty newspaper office where I worked at night, passing the single professional prostitute trying to keep the circulation going under the blue and powdered skin, I began slowly, painfully, reluctantly, to populate heaven.”

The human propensity to abuse power and engage in ugliness is a theme that mingles with another in The Lawless Roads — people who once appear insurmountable will eventually turn to dust. There’s a grotesque scene that illustrates both themes at once, and does so spectacularly. Greene is in San Antonio, Texas, and he decides to pay ten cents for admission to a freak show:

The high point of the exhibition were two dead gangsters — Dutch Kaplan and Oklahoma Jim, his henchman, lying in open coffins, mummified. Jim was dressed in rusty black, with a loose fly button and the jacket open to disclose the brown hollow arch of the breast, and his former leader was naked except for a black cloth across the loins. The showman lifted it to disclose the dry, dusty, furry private parts. He showed me the two scars upon the groin through which the taxidermist had removed all that was corruptible and put his finger there and urged me to do the same — it was lucky to touch the body of a criminal. He put his finger in the bullet-hole where the brains had been blasted out and touched the dingy hair…

Violent gangsters, once deeply feared, must bear the indignity of spending their eternal repose displayed naked in a freak show — with the living poking at their corpses. Barely a few hundred miles to the south in Mexico, those who have the power to imprison and murder clergy and laity, to expropriate churches and push the Sacraments underground, face the inevitability of the same fate — death as the great equaliser and the eraser of earthly power. Later, after attending Mass in the Mexican city of Monterrey — where public liturgies were once again permitted — Greene offers a stark contrast between ephemeral human power that ends in indignity and scorn, and the resilience of the Eucharist in anticlerical Mexico:

During the Calles persecution God had lain in radio cabinets, behind bookshelves. He had been carried in a small boy’s pocket into prisons; He had been consumed in drawing rooms and garages. He had eternity on His side.

From San Antonio, Greene travels to the dusty border town of Laredo, and then to Monterrey — in the thirties, an affluent, popular destination for Americans. Greene then travels by rail to, and past Mexico City, to Orizaba, and then to the coastal town of Veracruz. Greene recounts the events around the recent re-opening of churches in Orizaba –murderous brutality that led to a popular, Catholic rebellion. Police officers pursued a young girl who had just finished attending an illegal Mass in a private home. When she wouldn’t stop for the authorities, they gunned her down. Locals entered the shuttered churches in Orizaba and the broader Veracruz region, locked themselves in and flaunted authorities by ringing all the bells. The local governor ultimately agreed to reopen the churches. Greene describes a burst of religious zeal, but then suggests that once the liturgies were legalized, most people became indifferent and life moved on. We get one of Greene’s most vivid depictions of this religiosity when he sought to go to confession at a church dedicated to St. Joseph in Orizaba:

Loudspeakers were braying sentimental music from the radio shops and the bells of the church clanged back. A little row of booths had been set up along the gutter where you could buy rosaries and candles and corncakes; acetylene flares flickered on the thin paper streamers blowing in the cold wind off the peak; inside the church a few women prayed before a carpet of flowers. It was a small celebration: not much to spend, and an enormous inanition eating away the faith. They had risen here to their great moment — the death of the child who had the thin taste of the Host still on her palate. But the great moment was over — here in Orizaba it was like Galilee between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection — all the enthusiasm had been spent.

Graham Greene

Greene’s trip through Mexico occurs during Lent. His goal is to reach San Cristóbal de las Casas, located in the southern Chiapas state, in time for Holy Week. This travel memoir comes to life when Greene recounts the diverse and difficult forms of transportation he endures — and the people and places he experiences along the way. In addition to travelling by train at first, he sails on a barge considered unsafe and unreliable by many Mexicans, he has two excruciating and seemingly endless trips by mule and he flies aboard a defective airplane. Some of the people he meets are particularly memorable. A Norwegian widow in the village of Yajalón welcomes Greene into her home, providing him with room and board for nearly a week, as he awaits a flight that never arrives to take him to his destination. There’s a pitiful and absent-minded expatriate dentist who makes Mexico his home and who, in Villahermosa, “without a memory and without hope in the immense heat, loomed during those days as big as a symbol — I am not sure of what, unless the aboriginal calamity, ‘having no hope, and without God in the world.'” Greene’s book opens with a lengthy quote from the late Cardinal John Henry Newman, which attempts to reconcile the existence of God with the long history of human misery, suffering and evil, and ultimately makes sense of it by suggesting that everyone is “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.” Greene believes that his experiences in Mexico give credence to that thesis.

In Veracruz, Greene hires a young local man to be his guide, while he waits to board the decrepit barge known as the Ruiz Cano. The young man, after having one too many drink with Greene, suggests that he would accompany the Englishman on the barge as a friend, rather than a paid guide, despite his earlier oath never to board such a dreadful boat. He gets cold feet soon after making the commitment and there follows entertaining dialogue. Greene doesn’t paint many of the Mexicans he meets in a kind light — often he’s uncharitable and explicitly prejudiced. But there’s at least one clear exception: an, old ragged man living in a hut in the mountainous region of southern Mexico who despite his abject poverty and having nothing but coffee, welcomes Greene overnight as he is travelling through the area on a mule. The old man even gives up his makeshift bed for the English stranger. Greene writes: “All that was left was an old man on the edge of starvation living in a hut with rats, welcoming strangers without a word of payment, gossiping gently in the dark. I felt myself back with the population of heaven.”

After a bout of dysentery and nearing the end of his journey, Greene meets priests and bishops disguised modestly in simple, dark suits. Wearing a Roman collar carries a fine of 500 pesos. One of these men is the young Bishop of Tulancingo — Greene is introduced to him by a priest referred to simply as Father Q. The bishop had been imprisoned during the anticlerical purges. “The Church needed blood…It always needs blood,” the bishop said to Greene. “It was the duty of priests and bishops to die; he had no sympathy for complaints and pious horror,” Greene observed. Reflecting on the impact of violence on religious faith, Greene added: “The fact remains that in Mexico the Catholic societies which we regard in England with suspicion, with their ribbons and medals and little meetings after Benediction, have been lent the dignity of death.”

Not only in The Lawless Roads, but in several of his other works, Greene gravitates toward a heroic Catholicism — one where ordinary violence pushes ordinary people to transform in extraordinary ways. And more than anything, Greene suffered from an unrelenting drive to escape the mundane and the ordinary. That drive led him to Mexico, to Africa, to serve briefly as a spy, and to both embrace and doubt the Catholic faith. Every travel account is as much about the traveller as it is about the places being visited. In The Lawless Roads, we get colourful scenes and snippets of daily life in Mexico and a rich journey into the mind of one of the most gifted authors of the twentieth century.

Published inBook Reviews

One Comment

  1. Michael Nyilis Michael Nyilis

    This is an insightful, well-written review. It makes me want to give Greene another chance.

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