When Penguin turns a book into a “classic” you know you’re in for a good respectable read. This is the case with The Lawless Roads, written by the stellar 20th-century author Graham Greene.
Greene is a man whose literary output is matched or exceeded by writings about him. His fascination with sin and redemption, and with the darkest aspects of human nature transmuted by a tiny droplet of purity, stem from his Catholicism, no more evident than in The Lawless Roads. The roads are those that lead from the grey streets of London to the dazzling but sinister by-ways of old Mexico.
For reasons best understood by Greene himself and never adequately elucidated, Greene wanted to examine firsthand a situation that troubled him. The Mexican Catholic Church was being systematically oppressed by the anti-clerical government of President Calles in the late 1930s. A conservative man by nature, Greene saw in the Calles regime the worst ills of socialism and totalitarianism, and in Catholicism a ray of hope for the poor.
Struggling with very limited Spanish, traveling by trains, taxis and donkey-back, constantly prey to dysentery, Greene found his way to Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico whose history of oppression and rebellion continues unabated to this day. He finds little to his liking, making this travelogue one of the more negative I have ever read. The guides sneered, the people were primitive, the relics and catacombs were cramped, barren, uninspiring. He even notes, on one leg of the journey by train to Puebla, “How one begins to hate these people – the intense slowness of that monolithic black-clothed old woman with the grey straggly hair…the hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes……the white dust from the appalling plain blows against the glass.” He describes his destination, Puebla, as “the only Mexican town in which it seemed to me possible to live with some happiness.
Greene speaks with writerly efficiency of “the supporters of the proletarian revolution” who “have staked their lives on a philosophy. It is the only reason that they have for going on with the grim job of living. You cannot expect them to admit even to themselves that Russia has proved them wrong…” Mexico, he concludes, is “a state of mind,” and not as easily forgotten as he might have wished. Back in England, at a Mass in Chelsea, he observes that, in the clean cold cathedral of home, “no woman dragged herself up the aisle on her knees…we do not mortify ourselves.”
A meeting with an outlaw priest along the journey is presumed to be the basis for Greene’s magnificent novel The Power and the Glory. Greene’s many avid followers will read the book if only to mine that brief passage.
If you’re looking for a breezy travelogue, this is not the book for you. Greene’s Mexico is dusty, ailing, acrid. However if you love grand prose and description, you need look no further than Greene’s report of a cockfight: “The cocks’ beaks were pressed against each other, and the brass blared, and the cocks were placed on the outside lines, and the band fell suddenly silent. But the cocks didn’t fight, death didn’t perform; they turned their backs on each other, the spurs giving them an odd stilt-like walk, and then they stood quiet and indifferent, taking a look around, while the crowd hooted and jeered as if they had been cowardly or unsuccessful bull-fighters.”