Monday, 17 February 2014

The Lawless Roads. By Graham Greene

The Lawless  Roads

Graham Greene

Penguin books. First published 1939.

I bought this book in 1987, when I came to Chennai (then Madras) from Bengaluru (then Bangalore) to take up a job at the University of Madras (the same then). I must, therefore have read it at least once before, though, on re-reading it now, I don't remember anything of it. I confused some of it with 'The Power and the Glory' by the same author, which is a novel written, I think, based on his experiences described in this book. I remember his other travel book, 'Journey Without Maps', somewhat better. His novel 'Travels With My Aunt' deals with journeys through similar places (South America), and I remember that much better.

This book describes Greene's travels over a period of about a month in 1936 through a Mexico that was just emerging from a state of constant revolution to a long unbroken period of one-party rule that lasted till the turn of the millennium. (This party is the PRI, a largely socialist or left-of-centre organisation, inspired and guided by the trotskyite ideals of, well, Leon Trotsky, who, on the run from his former Bolshevik colleagues in Russia, lived his last years in Mexico, before he was assassinated.) Graham Greene's chief interest was to study the state of the Catholic religion in the state, especially in those areas in which it was outlawed. Thus, a lot, but not all, of the book is given over to describing his interactions with priests on the run, and catholic rituals conducted in secrecy. Greene converted to catholicism in his twenties, apparently so that he could marry his lover, but that event did not occur. However, in this book, and in a few others, he comes across as a thinker who believes in catholicism as the more human religion, belonging to the people, especially to poor people, and sharing many features with the religions of Asia and Africa. He implicitly counterposes these inclusive traditions against the secular philosophies of modern European politics (Communism, Fascism, Capitalism, Socialism, etc.), and as well as against Protestantism (the reigning politico-religious orthodoxy of the US and UK), to the disadvantage of both the latter. On the travels described in this book, he constantly notes sympathetically the travails of the poorest Mexicans, the peons and the aboriginal Indians, and their attempts to lighten these burdens of Life through belief in a religion that allows miracles and personal Gods, and Forgiveness and Kindness and Love, and not just belief in an impersonal, even 'un-human', Truth. He dislikes the socialist ideals of the PRI leaders, which, among other things, decreed that religion, in particular the Catholic religion, was not conducive to development and nation-building. However all summaries of Mexican history that I read recently have spoken well of the PRI government, and its efforts to modernize Mexico. Greene's ideas are thus very personal, and rather sentimental ones, unlikely, I think, to stand the light of a dispassionate analysis of the facts.

A surprising and disppointing note constantly struck by Greene is that of his distaste for Mexico, the country, its weather, its food, its local traditions (though not the ones connected to the Catholic religion), its Mayan and Aztec histories (of which he notes chiefly the brutal and violent practices), its transplanted Spanish gentry and lower middle classes, and its lack of 'civilisation' as compared to his European homeland. He is less liberal and tolerant in his views here than he is in some of his later books, such as 'Travels With My Aunt'. It was the latter book, in fact, which contributed a great deal to the development of my own sensitivities towards the underclass, even the criminal underclass. His general latter support for all manner of minor crooks and misfits in society, fools and losers, is absent here, except for his appreciative descriptions of the lengths such people in the Mexico of the 1930s, especially the Indians, go to uphold their catholic faith.

Greene's signature gentle, but tired, rather depressed and borderline cynical writing style is seen in this book as well. He writes fluently and brilliantly, presenting a richly detailed, comprehensive picture of the physical and psycho-social geography of south-western Mexico at the time of his visit, and in just a couple of hundred pages of text. As literature, this is a master-work.