Friday, September 2, 2011

Great Journeys: Graham Greene in Mexico

"People are made by places." (The Lawless Roads, p. 16)

The Lawless Roads (1939) by Graham Greene inspired Paul Theroux to observe that it's often the most difficult journeys that make the best travel books. Greene's journey was both of these things: an awful trip and a complex and ultimately brilliant work of non-fiction.

Greene got very ill. The means of transport was often terrible. He couldn't stand Mexico or for that matter the Mexicans whom he encountered. He got stuck with those Mexicans often. And when he finally reached the end of his trip it was to the news from his solicitor that he had been sued for libel over comments he'd made about Shirley Temple. He had every reason to grumble, and quite often in The Lawless Roads he does.

But it is a more profound type of difficulty that makes the book and the journey it represents great, and perhaps without this added dimension Greene's grumbling about the locals, their food, and the difficulties of the terrain could annoy. He had been sent to Mexico by the Vatican to report on the situation of Catholics, who had suffered under the rule of Plutarco Elisa Calles. Greene found plenty of evidence that the worst reports of killings, imprisonment, and other punishments were true. As a result, the author's depressed state as a traveller is in fact a rather light face for him to present as a social and religious commentator. His complaints about having to endure yet another terrible meal become a way of interrupting the much more dispiriting contemplation of a government that has become very cruel to its own people.

Out of that contemplation came Greene's landmark The Power and the Glory (1939), one of Time magazine's all time 100 novels. In fact, we first meet that novel's famous 'whiskey priest' of Tabasco in The Lawless Roads, and the two books share many questions, in particular how religious convictions exist and develop when there is a concerted and prolonged attempt to suppress them or replace them with new ways. The difficulties of the 'lawless road' were, in the end, illuminating ones for Greene, and his Christian convictions were much strengthened by the experience of seeing Mexicans maintaining theirs. The difficulties of travel may, in the end, have been fairly trivial. He made it back, and no doubt recovered well enough to enjoy even English food.

But the difficulties that came out of his journey were great. The worst journeys make the best travel books, because they are the ones that stay with you.

"I began to have a dim conception of the appalling mysteries of love
moving through a ravaged world." (The Lawless Road, p. 14)