Only the bullet-hole in the porch showed the flaw in Paradise – that this was Mexico. That and the cattle-ticks I found wedged firmly into my arms and thighs when I went to bed.
Mexico held a long fascination for Graham Greene, who had been wanting to see it since reading DH Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent in 1926.
The Lawless Roads is Graham Greene’s second travel book. Journey Without Maps, his first, was about Greene’s 1935 journey through Liberia and was published in 1936, the same year that Greene started in earnest to plan his Mexican journey.
Mexico had been a secular state since its contitution of 1857 (amended in 1917), although the anticlerical provisions of the consitution were not seriously enforced until after the Mexican Revolution and the enactment of a law by President Calles in the 1920s which led to 10 year campaign of anti-Catholic persecution.
Calles lost the 1928 election but, although the new Cardenas administration condemned his policies and arrested and exiled Calles, some states refused to repeal Calles’ policies which still existed in some states by the time Greene visited the country 10 years later.
Although the ostensible reason for Greene’s journey was to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, his real purpose was to visit those remaining parts of Mexico where Catholics were still persecuted and were forced to practice their religion covertly. His journey yielded not only the travel book The Lawless Roads but also provided inpsiration and ideas for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.
The trip had a long gestation period. Greene didn’t make it to Mexico until the start of 1938 and over the two year planning period his plans suffered several setbacks. It did, however, give him plenty of time in which to prepare himself and according to his biographer, Norman Sherry, Greene had formed a dim view of the counry before he had even left England:
The reading is as morbid as Liberia’s. There seem to be even more diseases, and an average of one shooting a week. This is a conservative estimate by a pro-Government writer!
Greene was joined by his wife, Vivien, for the first part of the journey in the United States. After a brief stay in New York the couple travelled south to New Orelans where Greene parted company with Vivien and continued alone to San Antonio before heading to the border at Laredo.
THE border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, 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 money-changers… 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’.
Once he had crossed into Mexico, Greene made his way to Monterey, San Luis Potosi and Mexico City before reaching the coast and Veracruz, where the adventure proper was to begin.
Writing about his Mexican journey, Norman Sherry writes that “one has the impression that all was not well with Greene”. That is a considerable understatement. Greene takes every opportunity to express his hatred for Mexico and Mexicans. Little escaped his censure, from the food, fruits, the Mexicans’ attitude to one another, their habits and the insects. He was obviously not enjoying himself yet, as Sherry notes, “there is no doubt about the genuineness of Greene’s reactions” during his journey. Greene was not playing a character simply for literary effect.
From Veracruz, Greene continued his journey to Villahermosa on the Ruiz Cana, a boat he claimed he would not have travelled down the Thames on. The risky passage lasted 50 hours and the majority of it was on the Gulf of Mexico. The overland journeys he makes by mule are also dangerous and arduous and one senses Greene’s eventual relief at reaching San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, the object of his journey.
The entire journey seems to prove Paul Theroux’s point that travel is only glamorous in retrospect but, even though Greene is not breezy company, his descriptions of people and places make The Lawless Roads a great read.
From the Mexican Greene meets in Veracruz who is intent on proving himself a good sport, to Greene’s atmospheric portrayals of Villahermosa and Salto, the epic journeys over the mountains by mule and nights spent in remote huts with armed strangers arriving in the middle of the night, The Lawless Roads must be one of the best accounts of the self-inflicted boredom, discomforts and risks that travel can involve.
He retains an acerbic sense of humour throughout, whether about the food (“the food at lunch-time proved unexpectedly good. I don’t really mean good: one’s standard in Mexico falls with brutal rapidity”) or the relief suggested for his dysentry, (“we stopped at a cantina, and had some mescal – the driver told me it was good for dysentery. I don’t think it was, but it was good for our spirits”).
The Lawless Roads contains many quotable passages and a great deal of truth about the experience of travel including crossing borders; the precautions travellers’ take; the intimate conversations travellers have; the dangers of the ‘quick tour’ and forming generalised judgments about a place based on limited observations; obsessions with insects, not to mention a need to describe toilets and the state of his bowels.
Greene also considers the perennial problem of what to read when travelling:
What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast, and so I surrendered perhaps my only hope of ever reading War and Peace in favour of something overwhelmingly national. And one did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country. [He chose William Cobbett’s Rural Rides and Trollope.]
Perhaps most importantly though, Greene describes the anticlimax that can accompany the end of a journey.
Having suffered with dysentery, Greene was relieved to back on the ‘tourist track’ in Mexico and was looking forward to enjoying its comforts. Yet he seems to arrive back where he started. Despite enduring hardships and achieving what he set out to Greene experiences no joyful climax before the same “irritations and responsibilities of ordinary life” he sought to escape in the first place crowd back in on him. He also seems to feel little pleasure at being home, with war is casting its shadow over daily life in the form of posters warning about the possibility of air raids.
Apparently dissatisfied with Mexico yet not happy to be home, Greene quotes from Yeats’ The Wheel near the end of the book to express an incessant restlessness and desire for change which possibly explains his own wanderlust. A similar sentiment is neatly summed up by the professor he meets earlier in his journey:
Motion is life,’ he said, ‘and life is motion.
For further reading see Kevin Hartnett’s review of The Lawless Roads in The Millions or follow Graeme Woods’ 2009 journey in Greene’s foosteps for The Atlantic magazine: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.