The Lawless Roads (Penguin Classics)

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Literature in Lieu of the Tour Guide: Fiction (and Non) to Take on Vacation

On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.

A Mexican Interlude: A Review of The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

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 violenceThe 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.

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