Book: Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads (1,276 words)

The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene
Vintage, 1st published in 1939

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.  

img_9839Calles 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.

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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. 

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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.

Book: Barbara Greene, Too Late to Turn Back

Too Late to Turn Back, Barbara GreeneLate to Turn Back: Barbara and Graham Greene in Liberia
by Barbara Greene (with an introduction by Paul Theroux)

published by the Travel Library

Too Late to Turn Back (also published as Land Benighted) is Barbara Greene’s account of her trek with her cousin, Graham Greene, through the Liberian bush in 1935.

From that adventure, Graham Greene produced Journey Without Maps.  Barbara’s account, to borrow from Paul Theroux, is however “quite a different pair of shoes”.

The difference between Graham and Barbara’s accounts can be characterised by the books they took with them to Liberia.  While Graham took Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and produced the darker more introspective Journey Without Maps, Barbara travelled with Saki and Somerset Maugham and produced a more accessible, vivacious travelogue.

While Too Late to Turn Back is considered valuable as a companion piece to Journey Without Maps and as a portrait of Graham Greene, there is, along side the self-effacement and modesty of its author, much more to Too Late to Turn Back.

Barbara Greene was 23 years old when, having been “merrily drinking champagne”, she met her cousin Graham at the wedding reception of Hugh Greene (Graham’s brother) (Although this article suggests that Barbara may have disguised her real age).

Greene’s plans for his Liberian adventure were already well advanced and, because everyone else had refused, Greene asked his cousin Barbara if she would accompany him. Barbara promptly agreed although she “had no clear idea of where he was going to”.

Both Graham and Barbara were later to recall the rashness of their decision to travel to Liberia.  Barbara described them both as being “two innocents” whose “ignorance was abysmal”.  Regretting her “champagne decision”, Barbara hoped her father would forbid her from making the journey but, to her surprise, found that he approved and so, within a fortnight, they were on their way.

As Barbara later acknowledged, it was “unusual then for young girls to adventure off into the wilds”, but “adventure off” she did and what follows in Too Late to Turn Back is the account of a young woman from a privileged existence who had admitted to enjoying her creature comforts roughing it through the African bush.  

As a travelling companion, Graham Greene was complimentary about Barbara, describing her in Ways of Escape as being “as good a companion as the circumstances allowed”.  He also recalled that she left all the decisions to him and never criticised when he made the wrong one.  An arduous journey is likely to strain even the closest of relationships of friendships and theirs was no exception.  Graham noted that, towards the end of the trip they would “lapse into long silences” but found this “infinitely preferable” to raised voices.  Barbara recalled many years later that they “never quarrelled, not once” and also that, although she had not, at any time, been the least bit helpful she “never, never complained”.

This last detail is a telling one.  Despite the seemingly carefree manner of her departure and references to the Savoy Grill and her privileged life in London, Barbara must have had considerable pluck to undertake a journey on foot through the West African bush as a lone woman with a cousin she regarded only as an “acquaintance” and an entourage of 29 carriers, cooks and guides.  They faced many hardships during their trek and Graham’s health progressively worsened prompting Barbara to fear he may die.

Although the book is the sort of travelogue that her cousin was keen to avoid writing, and despite the journey’s hardships Barbara’s account is engaging, revealing small details (such as Graham’s slipping down socks) which lend the narrative intimacy, warmth and humour. She is overly modest, although genuinely so and displays respect and admiration for her cousin, particularly over his handling of the carriers as well as for his presence, intelligence and intellect.  (At one point,  Greene admonishes Barbara over a pair of shorts she was wearing.  Barbara doesn’t repeat his words but, chastened, simply records that Graham “told me with all wealth of phrase at his command exactly what I looked like in them. It was worse than I imagined and hurriedly and humbly I gave the shorts to Laminah.”)

Theroux, in his 1981 introduction notes that Barbara changes during her journey from “scatty socialite” to “hardy and courageous”.  He notes her modesty, dignity, bravery and loyalty and suggests that her transformation shows that “however lighthearted a departure is, if the traveller is generous, observant and dedicated to the trip, the traveller will be changed.

Barbara later confessed to being unsure of how much the journey changed her although  admitted it must have done unconsciously.  She thought that managing “to stick through all difficulties to the end” showed “no particular merit” on her part as they had reached the point of no return early in their trip.  Although probably turn to a certain extent, one senses that this is more modesty and self effacement.

Unlike her cousin, Barbara never returned to Africa.  Remembering the trip in later life, Barbara identified the treasure that she brought back from their Liberian journey as being one that she kept in her heart: “a dream of pure beauty and peace, a vision of moonlit villages in the jungle, friendly people dancing to the twang of a native harp and the beat of a drum , simplicity where material values were of no account and where understanding could be reached without words.”

In Ways of Escape, Graham later stated that Barbara writing her book was the one thing in which she had disappointed him.  He had been so busy with his own notes that he had not even noticed that Barbara was making her own.  Greene was, however, grateful that Barbara had at least waited until a few years after his own had been published.  In fact, Barbara never meant for her book to be published and had only re-written her notes so that she had something to read to her father when he became ill.

Originally published as Land Benighted in 1938, Barbara’s account was reprinted in 1981 with a new forward by her and with an introduction by Paul Theroux. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print but second hand copies can be found online.