Graham Greene: Lawless Roads

In 1938 Graham Greene travelled to Mexico to investigate the state of the country after the anti-clerical purges of the Calles government.

He travelled through the tropical states of Chiapas and Tabasco, where the repression of Catholicism had been most severe.

The experience is recorded in The Lawless Roads and provided the material and inspiration for his novel The Power and the Glory.

It is entirely of a piece with the rest of the book that the Prologue to The Lawless Roads should be set not in Mexico but in England; for Grahame Greene takes his Englishness with him to Mexico and when he is in Mexico he reads books written by British writers about British people and set for the most part in Britain: Trollope‘s Doctor Thorne and William Cobbett‘s Rural Rides. While in Mexico he picks up a Book-of-the-Month Club edition of the English novelist Elizabeth Bowen‘s The Hotel (about the British in Italy), but cannot resist a snobbish aside:

Apparently Mr R had belonged to the American Book-of-the-Month Club. (I never thought I should bless the existence of such clubs.)
(p. 157)

The Prologue to The Lawless Roads itself is immediately preceded by a map of Mexico, and that in turn is preceded by three quotations, all of them taken from British writers. First there is the quotation of the Scottish poet Edwin Muir that provides the title of Greene’s book:

What made the change? The hills and towers,
Stand otherwise than they should stand,
And without fear the lawless roads,
Ran wrong through all the land.

The hills and towers of Mexico certainly stand otherwise than those of Green’s England or Muir’s Scotland. But for Greene, a convert to Rome, the key words of the verse might well have been those of the second sentence, as if all three nations, England, Scotland and Mexico, whose “hills and towers” once stood within the Roman fold, “should stand” within it once again. The implication seems to be that where there is no Roman church there can be no law, civil or moral and “no one really was responsible for anyone else” (p. 15). Certainly the Prologue makes clear that “the lawless roads/Ran wrong” through Britain as much as through Mexico:

In the land of skyscrapers, of stone stairs and cracked bells ringing early, one was aware of fear and hate, a kind of lawlessness – appalling cruelties could be practised without a second thought.
p. 14

In Mexico, Catholicism was under attack; in England the Anglican church was merely inadequate, being unable to “supply the same intimate symbols for heaven; only a big brass eagle and an organ voluntary …” The sense that sin abounds in both nations is summed up succinctly with a quotation from Marlowe:

Well, next month, perhaps Mexico … and why Mexico? Did I really expect to find there what I hadn’t found here? ‘Why, this is hell,’ Mephistopholes told Faustus, ‘nor am I out of it.’
p. 17

But the hell that Mephistopheles inhabits is as much a spiritual state as a temporal and actual one and so would the case appear to be for Greene too, with what Peter Hawkins refers to as his “congenital predisposition to despair”. Certainly Greene’s documentation of the hellish here on earth is unrelenting; the glimpses of heaven much less frequent, the apprehension of God predicated upon the immanence of evil:

And so faith came to me – shapelessly, without dogma, a presence above a croquet lawn, something associated with violence, cruelty, evil across the way. I began to believe in heaven because I believed in hell.
p. 14

Given all of this it should be less of a surprise to find that one of the three quotations that precede the Prologue comes from the writings of Cardinal Newman, the great examplar to all who have since followed him from Canterbury to Rome, a man who, like Greene himself in a later age, had a sharp eye for the evils of the times in which he lived:

… the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, ‘having no hope, and without God in the world’ …
p. 7

As Greene tells it, his road to Rome begins at school with a type of border crossing. His father was headmaster of Berkhamstead School, which Greene attended. The family home was adjacent to the school and was connected to it by a passageway:

…if you pushed open a green baize door in a passage by my father’s study, you entered another passage deceptively similar, but none the less you were on alien ground.
p. 13.

Greene’s border crossing to Rome begins with a deceptive passage through that “passage deceptively similar”. Once through it he stands “on the wrong side of the border looking back” (p. 14) – he had bunked a Mendelssohn concert for a precious hour of solitude in which to pray and contemplate his dawning faith before recrossing the border and entering that other, faithless world of lawlessness, violence and hate.

But “ties of hate” (p. 13) can exert as powerful a pull as those of love, and the mutual exertion leaves the inhabitant of the borderland in a state of perpetual restlessness:

How can life on a border be other than restless? You are pulled by different ties of hate and love. For hate is quite as powerful a tie: it demands allegiance.
p. 14.

Both the “England” and the “Mexico” that we encounter in The Lawless Roads provide Greene with temporal and geographical locations in which and against which his “metaphysical restlessness”, his loathing of the mortal world of men, or more precisely the world of men without the church, can articulate itself.

Much of the time what is conveyed is simply a loathing of Mexico itself, which builds into an “almost pathological hatred” (p. 145) – Greene’s favourite adjective is “hideous” and it crops up all over the place: “Hideous peasant pottery in the shops” in Oaxaca (p. 196); “hideous elaborate silver” in the shops in Mexico (p. 207);

at Apizaco, hideous little painted clubs and walking sticks, at Riconada little grey stone mortars for pounding corn made hideous with blue and scarlet birds’ beaks
(p. 97).

When Greene arrives in Puebla, however, he discovers “the only Mexican town in which it seemed to me possible to live with some happiness” (p. 201), a city more French in atmosphere than Mexican, a city of whose lingering “social Catholicism” Greene approves. However, even here, Greene manages to spot something hideous:

And I had not imagined the tiled churches so delicate in colour, for tiles can be hideous even in Puebla where the manufacturers have presented tiled seats in the public gardens which advertise in mauve and green majolica their cigarettes and mineral water.
(p. 201)

Puebla is indeed a lovely town. For Greene it differed from all the towns he had visited in that it had more than what he calls “the usual wounded beauty”. It is not that Greene has no eye for the beauties of Mexico, it is rather that everything without the church is informed by that “terrible aboriginal tragedy” that Newman speaks of; the people, the tourists, the food, the beasts and insects, the very landscape itself.

The whole book is really an exploration of the godless state of man, a journey of discovery into and out of the heart of Mexican darkness, the “Godless state” (p. 113) of Tabasco itself, where the Catholic church has been most thoroughly suppressed

I remembered the confessor saying to me in Orizaba, ‘A very evil land.’ One felt one was drawing near to the centre of something – if it was only of darkness and abandonment.
(p. 114)

Greene supposes that there might be “geographical and racial excuses” for the lethargy of the Tabascans who do nothing to resist the suppression of the church, and offer no opposition through secret masses and so forth and who, now that the churches have been shut or demolished, do nothing and have nothing to do. Their lethargy is in part a response to the landscape of river and swamp and the extreme heat of the climate. But the racial excuse is this: Tabasco has no indians “with their wild beliefs and enormous if perverted veneration” to shame the Catholic populace into action.

Greene laments the lack of a church in Villahermosa, a place not only of spiritual solace, but also a place of coolness where the poor man may find rest from the ugliness of life outside. True enough, but perhaps in Greene’s day the churches did not display waxen effigies of a bloody suffering Christ that hang from crosses or mope in glass cases as they do today, “ugly” and “hideous” idols, each with its built-in coin box.

They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.
(Psalm 135: 16-17)

Now that the church has been destroyed there is no escape from the heat and the mosquitoes. Death-seeking vultures lurk on the roofs, cattle ticks bury themselves in one’s flesh, beetles blacken the “sour riverside” (p. 124), ants infest hotel rooms and bugs fall out of books, flies must be fended off with tobacco smoke. It is as if the “terrible aboriginal calamity” has infected the whole of creation. Greene was probably familiar with Paul‘s comment in Romans 8:22 that:

…the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

Certainly the link between the lack of love among humans in their fallen state and the predatory instincts of creatures is suggested at times although throughout most of the book it remains implicit:

…expecting the worst of human nature as well as of snakes, the dreary hopeless failure of love.

The correspondence between man and the natural world in which he moves is suggested by the second of the three quotations that precede the Prologue, which I have omitted to mention until now. It is taken from Wit’s Recreation, published in 1640:

Man’s like the earth, his hair like grass is grown,
His vains the rivers are, his heart the stone.
(p. 7)

What may be taken by many to be an expression of man’s natural connection to the earth was perhaps interpreted by Greene as a statement of Man’s “hideous” fallen state. The bite in the last clause of the second line, alluding to the stony-heartedness of mankind in his natural state belies the apparent lovely simplicity of the lines.

In Guadalupe Greene finds the antidote to the hard-heartedness of mortal man in the form of the statue of the Virgin:

…the dark-skinned Indian Virgin bending her head with a grace and kindliness you will find nowhere in mortal Mexico.
(p. 86)

Greene tells the touching story of how the Virgin appeared to the Indians, not to the Catholic Spanish conquerors, giving the Indians self-respect and a hold over the Spanish.

…it was a liberating, not an enslaving legend.
(p. 87)

Hence facsimiles of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe are to be found in churches throughout Mexico. All this is reported with approval, as one might expect.

However, in Las Casas Greene sees a more disturbing encounter between the Indians and Catholic images. He sees a group of Indians brushing greenery over the wooden loincloth and thighs of a statue of Christ crucified and wonders:

Was it a formal superstition, like not walking under a ladder and throwing salt over the shoulder? Or was there a darker and more passionate idolatory? Now that the Body of God could not be found in any church in Chiapas, was the wooden image taking on a terrible and erroneous importance?
(p. 182)

The implication of course is that if freedom were restored to the church then the Indians would turn back to the sacraments and away from “more passionate” forms of idolatry, as if we are to believe that the line of partition between “veneration” and “idolatry” is never breached where the Roman church is allowed its freedom.

But this is not the first time that Greene’s convert dogmatism leads him towards doubtful conclusions. Elsewhere he writes:

Within two months of Pro’s landing, President Calles had begun the fiercest persecution of religion anywhere since the reign of Elizabeth.
(p. 19)

Nothing is said about the threats that the Elizabethan state faced from hostile Catholic powers. By omitting any qualifying articles or adjectives Greene achieves an elegant economy of style but also appears to imply that the terms “religion” and “Roman Catholicism” are coterminous, which, I hardly need add, they are not. Finally, are we to believe that there were no fierce persecutions of religion to compare with those of Elizabeth until the Calles Presidency in Mexico? Are not the direful consequences that followed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV of France in 1685 worthy of mention, to cite but one example of fierce religious persecution (that occurred over eighty years after the death of Elizabeth)? When it comes to persecution, Protestants and Catholics are as pots and kettles.

Greene returns to the Elizabethan persecutions by way of a short discussion of the state:

The State … always the State. What idealisms have gone to the construction of that tyrant! One thinks of the Fabians and Mr Shaw1 in his Jaeger suit; and then suddenly the thing lives – and Pro receives the coup de grâce in the little dirty yard and no one any more is able to make the claim, ‘The State is I.’ The state is none of us; phrases like ‘no taxation without representation’ are meaningless, because we are all taxed and no one is represented.
(p. 74)

So far so good. But then we are told:

Perhaps the only body in the world today which consistently – and sometimes successfully – opposes the totalitarian State is the Catholic Church.
(p. 74)

Perhaps the adverb at the beginning of the sentence was, in its apparent modesty, intended to disarm us so that Greene could palm us off with the preposterous words that follow: “…the only body… which consistently…opposes the totalitarian State…” The only body? Consistently? In Spain during the Civil War? Greene mentions the salutary fact that “in Italy the Osservatore Romano printed what no Italian paper dared to print – protests against the bombing of Guernica and attacks on open towns” (p. 74). However that may be, on his voyage back to Europe as a third class passenger aboard a German liner Greene falls in with a group of Falangist blue shirts who are also, of course, ardent Catholics:

On Sunday there was a church parade; the volunteers marched up to mass in the first class; twenty-five of them lined the wall in uniform; one man stood at attention on each side of the altar; it was impressive, as a funeral is. A monk preached… on suffering and sacrifice and offering up your agony to God. After the Mass was over, before the priest had time to leave the altar, the volunteers broke into the Falangist hymn… And then, inevitably, the Fascist salute, ‘Arriba Espaòa. Viva Franco’; every arm went up but mine, yet no one minded at all. These were Spaniards, not Germans.
(p. 217)

There is an inevitable equivocation here. After all, unlike the ghastly pagan Nazis, these are good solid Catholic boys who don’t mind at all when Greene doesn’t join in their Fascist salute.

And so, we return to Greene’s discussion of “the totalitarian state … in the time of Elizabeth in England” (p. 75):

… the state puts its own interpretation on the word treason – and never punishes anyone for his religion. It is the technique the totalitarian State has always employed: in the time of Elizabeth in England, just as much as in Mexico, Russia or Germany today, and Campion’s reply is still the valid one, ‘In condemning us you condemn all your own ancestors – all the ancient priests, bishops, and kings … For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach?’
(p. 75)

Campion’s resistance and his testimony, like that of the other Catholic martyrs, is moving and brave. But does it not betray a certain totalitarian impulse of its own in its claim upon the doubtful “uniformity” of “all [my italics] the ancient priests, bishops and kings”? Once mention is made of “kings” we find ourselves back in the realm of the state and note that “the totalitarian State”, as Greene calls it, was not the exclusive aspiration of Protestant monarchs. True, the Protestant martyrs of England were not put to the faggots by the Roman Church on murky charges of treason, but they were indeed burnt by “the secular arm” on the equally odious charge of heresy in the time of Mary or of whichever of the ancient kings under whose secular authority those fires were lit.2

For all that, however, I must admit that Greene’s opinionated partiality is an excellent narrative device. Every fellow has his hobby horse, as that excellent Anglican clergyman, Laurence Sterne, was apt to point out and in one place adding a crucial rider:

So long as a man rides his Hobby-Horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him-pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?

Greene’s particular hobby horse happened to be the Roman Church, over which a certain type of English chap has always gone a bit ga-ga. Although he may have persuaded a small number of impressionable folk of a certain ilk to climb aboard with him, it cannot be said that he compels us to ride with him, for one is too aware of the fact that for Greene Catholicism, like Mexico itself, was “a state of mind” (p. 224) akin to that of Marlow’s Mephistopheles: “this, is hell, nor am I out of it” (p. 17), as mentioned above.

The encounter with Kruger on the German steamer presents us with a different kind of mentality; Kruger dreams of returning to the Amazon to live among the natives in a state of nature. He tells Greene

You worry too much. You don’t want to worry. You just want to contemplate.
(p. 222)

Yet despite this apparent difference in their characters they share two things in common. One is a cultivated hatred for Mexicans:

How good the natives were, he said with love; not like the Mexicans. (If he ever saw a Mexican again he’d kill him.)
(p. 220)

The second thing they have in common, despite all Kruger’s desire for peace in the Amazon (rather as Greene sought peace in contemplating heaven), is a certain restlessness, an urge to escape (after all, having found his arcadia, why ever did Kruger leave it?):

He thought perhaps he’d jump the ship at Lisbon, but they didn’t give him a chance. He was carried remorselessly on towards Hamburg and prison… he wasn’t frightened. It was only one more thing to escape from… Sometimes one wonders what it is they do – with so much hardship – escape.
(p. 222).

Mexico is a state of mind for Greene. Kruger and the Falangists have also turned places into states of mind, although for them they serve as ideals rather than as mental distopias. It is as if everybody, or at least every European, is fated to live in a state of existential displacement, of disappointed expectations or of unrealizable hopes. At the end of the book not even the longed for violence of war can be relied upon to turn up when and where it was expected:

The telephones were cut off, the anti-aircraft guns were set up on the common outside, and the trenches were dug. And then nothing happened at all – the great chance of death was delayed.
(p. 224)

Restlessness; disappointment, displacement, discomfort and the longing for death; these are the moods and experiences of The Lawless Roads. Towards the end of the final chapter, fittingly called “A State of Mind”, Greene quotes YeatsThe Wheel, which is in its sentiment a most appropriate coda to both the book and this review:

Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter’s best of all;
And after that there’s nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come –
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.

David Hurley
May 2003


“The platitudes of age are often the main discoveries of youth”
(p. 24)

“Like most Mexican things it was a bit fake”
(p. 143)


1. “Our question is not to kill or not to kill, but to select the right people to kill … the essential difference between the Russian liquidator with his pistol (or whatever his humane killer may be) and the British hangman is that they do not operate on the same sort of person.”
G.B.S. quoted by
Brooke Allen in The New Criterion.

2. Study note: Which authority was it that lit the faggots beneath Giordano Bruno in Rome, or beneath any of the other “heretics” within the jurisdiction of the Papal States?


1 Comment

”The Lawless Roads are neither!” Thus begins my critique of the very enjoyable Graham Greene novel “The Lawless Roads”.

    I consider it a novel because the roads were neither lawless nor were they roads. Nowhere in the novel is there a case of lawlessness perpitrated against the protagonist, nor does he describe anything akin to a road; it’s all potholes at best. He navigates his “lawless” journey via boat, airplane, or donkey.

    Nevertheless, it was a book I couldn’t put down ’till all was read, either because I know Mexico quite well, or because I suffer from a chronic character flaw (both of which could be quite true).

    When Greene asserts that “Like the characters in Chekhov they have no reserves–you learn the most intimate secrets,” I had to agree: Only in Mexico!

    Alas, Greene rushed to judgment and he stereotyped, and for him Mexico became nothing more than “disappointment and despair”; understandable, I suppose , for someone whose mission was to reveal the catastrophe of opposition to his beloved Catholic church in the Mexican province of Chiapas at the time. But time heals all, and today Greene could rest in peace. Catholicism is once again alive and well in Chiapas.


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