Thursday, 8 September 2011

Penguin no. 559: The Lawless Roads
by Graham Greene

The border means more than a customs house, a passport office, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the moneychangers. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border - it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it 'a happy death.'

This is Graham Greene's account of the journey he took across Mexico, and up into the remote regions of Chiapas and Tabasco, during the spring of 1938. Mexico at the time was a Catholic country being governed by anti-Catholics, and he went there to observe firsthand how the Mexicans and Indians had coped with the religious persecution: with the confiscation and destruction of the churches, the expulsions and murders of the priests, and the enforced secularization of the education system. It was the journey which inspired his novel The Power and the Glory.

It was President Calles a decade before who had started to enforce the anti-clerical statutes of the Mexican constitution, and although he was in exile by the time Graham Greene visited his country, the persecution was continuing under his successor. President Calles had inadvertently provided the Mexicans with a martyr in Father Miguel Pro, miscalculating the effect of releasing a photographic record of his execution on the fabricated charge of attempted assassination. Instead of dispiriting the rebels, the anti-government guerrillas were inspired to contemplate their own martyrdom. The rebellion was violently suppressed.

The religious persecution was unevenly enforced; in Tabasco not a single church or priest remained. But elsewhere it had been a story of defiance, of priests willingly enduring a life spent hiding in a hostile and dangerous territory, and also of the inevitable corruption, of priests taking advantage of the fears of the peasants to overcharge for their services. It was difficult for the Mexicans, but also difficult for the foreigners: the revolution stripped them of their assets and left them stranded like creatures from a receding tide; they lived in a hostile environment amongst people who hated them, but without any means of escape. Some of this anti-foreigner animosity was directed at Graham Greene as his journey continued.

This is a chronicle not only his journey, but of the way he felt as each day passed: the boredom, the anxiety and the desperate homesickness. He seems determined to see it through, but the journey is presented throughout as an ordeal rather than an adventure. At times he reflects on how travelling through this wild landscape should have had an air of romance, but he never shows any enthusiasm. He feels hate towards Mexico and the Mexicans; he despises all that he encounters: their culture, their food, the accommodation, the means of travel, the boredom, the vermin, and the unbearable extremes of temperature, both heat and cold. It is all disorder and chaos, nothing works well or runs to plan. Every arrangement involves frustration, every mode of transport danger and fear.

He begins his story by reminiscing about his childhood, and his unhappy life at the school of which his father was the housemaster, and in a sense portraying the other side of the green baize door as his own private Mexico, peace only coming during moments of unobserved escape. In Mexico it seems to be only when attending mass that he has some experience of the same feeling. The story of his journey is told in sketches and impressions, with a narrative that is a little unclear as it moves between England and Mexico, and the discussions of how he felt, what he had been reading, and what he had dreamt, and never quite filling in the details in any linear sense of what the Mexicans had endured. The story is similar in every town he visits, and the unfamiliar names merge one into the other. Only in Las Casas during Holy Week does he see mass celebrated without concealment, and draws some inspiration from the curious improvised ceremonies of the Catholic Indians

His is a voice from another time. The ideas expressed are ones you no longer hear: the belief in miracles, the justification for grandeur and elegance of the churches. I knew nothing of this time in history, of this transplanted Elizabethan story of priest holes, and secret masses, and death as the price of adhering to one's faith. I am glad to have read it, but I am also glad to have finished: Graham Greene's unrelenting unhappiness made it a difficult book to enjoy. And still between the pages I came across an old letter dated 1948 and serving as a makeshift bookmark, recording the previous owner's inability to make it to the end, and I understand why.


  1. I agree with pretty much everything you say here. Greene is one of my favorite authors, although his non-fiction is rather hit-and-miss. This work in particular is tedious and a chore to get through but at least it inspired him to write the wonderful "The Power and the Glory." Have you read it, by any chance?

  2. At the beginning of your review I got excited because I have a goal of reading more about Mexico and its history and thought this might be something to seek out, however I don't think I can read something that is so negative about Mexico and unrelentingly so. Maybe I'll try The Power and the Glory instead.

  3. Hi Jason,

    The trouble with getting older is that I find I tend to forget which books I have read and which ones I haven't; overcoming this was one of the reasons I decided to keep this blog. However, although I have read a number of Graham Greene's novels (Brighton Rock being my favourite), I don't think I can have read The Power and the Glory, because the story he told of Mexico was one with which I was unfamiliar. But I have it in a numbered Penguin, so it is one I will get to soon.

    Hi Anbolyn,

    Jason is right when he describes it as a chore to get through, and when I reflected on why that was, it seemed to me it was the negative tone of the book. I'm interested to try The Power and the Glory and see how it compares.



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