By Ray Greenblatt
Graham Greene did not have much time to be poetic when writing his novels; he knew that a fast-moving plot was what held the reader. However, in his book reviews, essays, travel books, other elements could be expanded. In THE LAWLESS ROADS Greene explores the dynamics of Mexico in 1938, wandering many byways where he had the space to be descriptive as well as contemplative.
The Shadow of Hemingway
Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway both began to write in the 1920’s. As the years evolved, Greene developed a philosophical, psychological style; while Hemingway’s remained essentially the same—basic word usage, spare sentences—growing stylized over time. But Hemingway’s almost immediate and worldwide effect on writing was a phenomenon. The writers especially of detective fiction employ his style to this very day. Greene’s “Entertainments,” his name for the six thrillers he wrote, were influenced by Hemingway; even to a degree this early travel book about Mexico. This style was apt for expressing what Greene experienced.
Greene uses a series of nouns loosely joined by “and.” “In the market flowers and flies and ordure and sleep.” (90) “They were full of scent and sunlight and quiet and desertion.” (200) “This was real—the high empty rooms and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell.” (126) Notice the high number of negatively charged nouns.
Perhaps with further nod to Hemingway, Graham Greene also uses strings of simple sentences. “The hammocks creaked and something fluttered in the roof and a child wailed.” (135) “This small place wedged in among the mountains round its locked decaying church, and time just going by and the aeroplane always coming tomorrow. “ (157) Sometimes that all-purpose “and” joins adjectives, even sentence fragments: “No one could resent it: he was so pink and old and he had so many introductions. And a police badge under his lapel. “ (32)
The tone of his writing can be blase: “He was like the tough case of something labeled fragile.” (105) Or the author himself steps into the scene: “I had taken him already and made a character of him and I had got him entirely wrong.” (33) Also the use of ironic humor: “A few bright blue birds mocked one with other people’s happiness.” (185) Selectively, the Hemingway style can be liberating and focus the reader on each word: “He hated Mexico with a little refined adder-like hatred.” (42) Not only is “hatred” repeated for emphasis; unique adjectives—“refined” and “adder-like”—can be more easily observed and enjoyed.
Meet The People
The 1930’s, with a worldwide depression, were a sad time for the people of Mexico. Graham Greene shows us some happy folk. At a cockfight: “They had plump mild operatic faces.” (43) In a cantina: “Nothing one could say failed to feed that enormous flame of mirth: it roared like a draught in a chimney, sucking up words like scraps of paper.” (96)
But for the most part life was serious if not tragic. A rebel general: “One gold tooth like a flaw in character.” (50) “Many people had a kind of affection for him—an affection for an animal whose cage you enter with caution.” (51) Even the soldiers had a hard life: “I passed the poor huts of the soldiers—just twig and mud, like birds’ nests, on the bank.” (205)
The educated suffered similarly to the poor. A philosopher: “The old professor had thin white hair, a long white moustache, and blanched and bony hands. He had an air of melancholy breeding; he was very clean and very worn; he was like an old-fashioned vase standing among the junk at the end of an auction.” (47) A school- teacher: “He was benevolent and patronizing, he knew everybody, but unlike the priest he knew nothing at all. He sat there like a poster advertising something of no value to anyone at all.” (204)
An ancient peasant: “His hands were like last year’s leaves.” (161) Beggars at a railroad station: “They came up around the train on both sides of the track like mangy animals in a neglected zoo.” (58) Even children were afflicted: “Two small boys boarded the train at San Marco with guitars and played in the middle of the coach for centavos—sweet melancholy voices and large brown actors’ eyes.” (88) “A little blonde girl of two lay wearily asleep in her nurse’s arms. Washed out and fragile as a shell, with her tiny ears already drilled for rings and a gold bangle round the little bony wrist.” (95)
During this Mexican persecution priests were not spared: “In the mortuary, lids not quite closed and the obstinate mouth dropping open to show the big stony teeth, and the vacant face like a mask taken off and ready for any wearer.” (75) Greene gives most of his time to describing men; women were usually involved with the church, as we will later see. However, here is one tragic woman: “Through an open door in one of the little houses I came suddenly on a tall tragic woman with hollow handsome features and a strange twisted mouth—like an expression of agony.” (147)
Mexican Flora and Fauna
Graham Greene is skilled in depicting people. Let us now see poetically how he brings the landscape to life: “The rough, friendly, complex hills.”(49) “An oriental flat-roofed town under the leonine wrinkled hills.” (192) Mountains from the air: “The mountains came nearer—heavy black bars one behind the other—and a silver horizontal gleam upon the ground was a waterfall.” (128) “The mountains crouched all round like large and friendly dogs.” (169) “The volcanoes were there, moving half submerged like icebergs along the horizon.”
The land ran the gamut from aridity to fecundity. “This was the dry season: you could see the hollows—like thumb-marks—waiting for the rains.” (128) “All the vegetation died out into a black and hopeless soil.” (94) “It was like the grave, the earth taking over before its day.” (152) “You can’t open a book without some tiny scrap of life scuttling across the page.” (120) The ancient temples in the jungle: “You can see them on the point of being swallowed again by the forest; they have looked out for a minute, old wrinkled faces, and will soon withdraw.” (137)
The villages and towns were often run down. “It was like a place besieged by scavengers—sharks in the river and vultures in the street.”(103) “ In the yard a whirlwind, small and domestic, raised a pillar of dust.” (50) “The turkeys—those hideous Dali heads, with the mauve surrealist flaps of skin they had to toss aside to uncover the beak or eyes.” (142) “The cocks crowing for miles around, an odd Biblical rhapsody at dawn.” (35) And in the local river “the carcasses of old stranded steamers held up the banks.” (102)
Yet the natural beauty could be stunning: “The sun dropped out of sight, the forests became black below their gilded tips. The world was all steel and gold, like war.” (160) “Only sunset cast some kind of gentle humanizing spell over this rocky cactus desolation—a faint gold, a subjective pity, as if one were looking at the world for a moment through a god’s anatomical and pitying eye.” (38) “The last pale golden light welling across the plain, dropping down over the ridge which ended it as if over the world’s edge, so that you thought of the light going on and on through quiet peaceful uninhabited space.” (166)
Greene traveled by local train: “We were like an overgrown fossil as we bumped at seven in the morning along the hideously familiar way to Istapa.” (189) Also by train: “It moves in great loops to summer, the seasons change as you watch, the air thickens, and exhilaration stirs in the flaccid lungs.” (89) Here is an overview of the landscape: “At the top of the ridge above the Mexican plain one emerged far above the sunset, which poured out between the mountains—a pale green under-water light shading into gold across the Mexican plain towards the volcanic snows, over more churches than you could count of fake pink stone, over haciendas like broken toys, and the wrinkled hills, a hundred luminous miles.” (205)
The Greene Theology
Graham Greene, a Catholic himself, was commissioned to evaluate how Mexico was surviving. For a decade the dictator President Calles tried to eradicate Catholicism from the country; many churches had been closed and priests killed. However, the people’s faith would not be stamped out. “The cathedral sails like an old rambling Spanish galleon.” (61) “The churches still stand, great white shells like the skulls you find bleached beside the forest paths.” (141) “Everywhere churches lift up their bruised and antique heads above the walls and trees.” (75)
It is mostly women who sustain the faith. “With their cave-dwellers’ faces and their long staffs they might have been Stone Age people emerging from forgotten caverns to pay their tribute to the Redeemer on Resurrection morning.” (185) If a church was unavailable, they would go to private homes: “All day you could see women hurrying with ostrich secrecy towards the house in the side street where the body and blood of Christ was reserved in the little room off the balcony.” (178)
Some might not take the faith seriously: “Three girls doing the Stations of the Cross, giggling and chattering from agony to agony.” (35) But an innate feeling abided: “During the Calles persecution God had lain in radio cabinets, behind bookshelves. He had been carried in a small boy’s pocket into prisons; he had been consumed in drawingrooms and in garages. “ (36) “A great bare pulled-about church hummed gently and continuously with the prayers of the people.” (36) “They were like relays of labourers making a road up Calvary.” (36)
“Perhaps this is the population of heaven—these aged, painful, and ignorant faces: they are human goodness.” (40) “You would say that life itself for these was mortification enough.” (40) “Even if it were all untrue and there were no God, surely life was happier with the enormous supernatural promise than with the petty social fulfillment, the tiny pension and the machine-made furniture.” (45)
To conclude, let us have Graham Greene poetically offer some of his wisdom:
“Death dictates certain rites. Men make rules and hope in that way to tame death.” (44)
“Guns on their hips, the holsters and the cartridge belts beautifully worked, a decorative death.” (49)
Dictators “under their pretence of freedom have left so many chains.” (58)
Socialism “like an electric train gone wild, sparkling and jabbing down the Embankment.” (87)
“That Mexican façade of bonhomie—the embrace, the spar, the joke—with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and the treachery of their life.” (163)
“Despair has its own humour as well as its own courage.” (42)
“The little villages go up on the wounded clay with garages like tombs.” (46)
“It is before you cross a frontier that you experience fear.” (100)
“There is always something exhilarating about moving inward from the sea into an unknown country.” (104)
“It was like being forgotten in a maze when the ticket man had gone home.” (47)
“Man has a dreadful adaptability.” (137)
“Human kindness withering out like a flower in a vacuum flask.” (93)
“I suppose the love of life which periodically deserts most men was returning: like sexual desire, it moves in cycles.” (144)
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Lawless-Roads-Penguin-Classics/dp/0143039733
This review will be published by The Graham Greene Newsletter in print August 2019.
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.