This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.
In early 1938, at the behest of the Vatican, Graham Greene traveled to Mexico to report on the anti-Catholic initiatives of President Lázaro Cárdenas. The Lawless Roads, his account of that trip, opens with a disclaimer: “This is the personal impression of a small part of Mexico at a particular time, the spring of 1938,” he writes. “Time proved the author wrong in at least one of his conclusions – the religious apathy in Tabasco was more apparent than real.” During his visit Greene pronounced the situation calm, but only a month later the peasantry erupted into violence
The reliability of the narrator is a central issue in any book, but particularly a travel story where the author by definition treads in unfamiliar waters. As a colonial era Brit come to Mexico, possessing limited Spanish and a meager tolerance for the food, Greene appears at first to be a tenuous interpreter. On his way down the Gulf coast to Mexico City, he remarks with a breezy confidence on the “sexual impertinence” of a young maid and the “sensual” look on an indigenous girl’s face, and later levels an incurious verdict against the character of his guide. “He had a feeling of responsibility,” Greene writes, “and no Mexican cares for that.”
But there is also a measure of hesitation in Greene’s voice. 1938 is worlds removed from 1838, and Greene is not the obstreperous H.M. Stanley stepped boldly into Africa. He acknowledges early on the caveat familiar to anyone who has ever written an email home from a foreign country. “The danger of the quick tour,” he writes, “[is that] you miscalculate on the evidence of three giggling girls and a single Mass, and malign the devotion of thousands.” While Greene has some of the cocksure colonialist in him, he’s just as much a modern pilgrim, approaching his journey with epistemological caution and an awareness of how far he is from home.
The heart of Greene’s journey is a rugged trek through the remotest parts of Chiapas. He makes his way by barge, prop plane and mule back and often arrives at the next town well after dark, when all the locals have claimed sleeping spots for the night and only the floor remains. Greene rarely misses an opportunity to comment on his discomfort – the heat, the cold, the beetles, the food – but what he does is more important than what he says, and it’s hard not to admire the lengths to which he goes to get from place to place. When a rainstorm prevents a plane from landing to take him to Las Casas, he hires a team of mules instead. The trip takes three days over an undulating, spiraling track through the mountains. Greene writes of the constant way he exhorted his beast, “After nine hours I began to feel that the words ‘Mula. Mula. Echa, mula’ were graven on my brain forever.” Greene fails to gain any real insight into the religious situation in Mexico, but that aspect of his trip becomes almost beside the point. The book is sustained by the adventure along the way, and the honest, personal way he describes it.
1938 was of course a momentous year in world history. German troops annexed Austria nearly the same week that Greene began his trek through Chiapas, and while he does not dwell on the events in Europe, his writing is accented with premonitions of change. Arriving in a small village high up in the central plateau, Greene encounters an expatriated German “who kept a tiny photographic store.” Looking around, Greene notes the torn covers of magazines decorating the walls and “among them, rigidly, the face of Hitler.” As Greene makes his way through the mountains there is a feeling, particularly with seventy years of hindsight, that this journey is the last of its kind. Europe was set to burn and the jaunty colonial prerogative would not survive the war, to be replaced as it were by the ambiguous opium haze that Greene later described in The Quiet American.
But as Greene goes along, recording his impressions of Mexico and complaining about the bulbous mosquitoes, he seems already to have a foot in the remade world. Reading Trollope, he grows momentarily homesick for London, missing his bookshelves and chairs and the buses going by on the street. But he snaps out of it and reminds himself, “it wasn’t real: this was real – the high empty room and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell.” The genocide in Europe and the horror of Hiroshima ushered in a long postmortem skepticism, which challenged our claims to know much of anything about the world. Greene shakes his head free of Trollope in favor of what is right in front of him, and while a hot and swarming floor might not explain Mexico, it’s true to what he saw and better than any fanciful alternative.
The result is a precise, modest book that does not try to explain more than it can. At the celebration of a saint’s birthday in a small town, Greene observes a fireworks display. “A Catherine wheel whirled in the road,” he writes, “and the rockets hissed up into the sky and burst in flippant and trivial stars.” It is a small moment, over almost as soon as it began, and yet one that lingers where a more percussive racket might have been forgotten already. I would say the same of The Lawless Roads.