The Lawless Roads is an unusual read for anyone who knows Graham Greene’s other work. There are snippets here of the author’s recognisable tone – an acquaintance, for instance, described as having done a correspondence course in personality – but overall this book comes across as little more than an argumentative diatribe, delivered from a singular perspective, a position that narratives in the author’s other work do not usually occupy.
The Lawless Roads takes the form of a travelogue. Its journey is linear. Graham Greene is visiting Mexico in the nineteen thirties and from the start he is a man with a mission. As a committed and practising Roman Catholic, he seems to seek out examples of how the Mexican Revolution has pursued its repression and persecution of the Church. Unlike much of Graham Greene’s other work, the Lawless Roads employs a consistently linear structure as the author describes the sequence of his apparently arduous travels through the country. He meets with locals and expatriates, little folk, peasants and professionals, clerics and laity. There are related experiences that achieve the same poignancy of observation and expression that Greene achieves throughout his work, but these merely and occasionally punctuate the whole, rather bad-tempered affair.
Graham Greene clearly did not enjoy Mexico. It might be argued that he arrived with his mind already made up. No, it can be assumed he did so, and he proceeded to find exactly what he sought, as he had predicted.
A consistent and repeated thread that runs apparently innocuously through the text is the author’s attitude to Mexican food. It provided such memorably negative experiences that it seems to have provoked a description of almost every meal. As ‘scraps of meat’ are served alongside tasteless or vile concoctions, we seriously begin to wonder how Graham Greene managed to wander the world, tread every continent, during his writer’s lifetime without elsewhere encountering similar problems or reactions. Mexico, it seems, was on his hit list and stayed there.
The point he clearly wanted to make, and repeatedly, was that the Mexican Revolution had given rise to repression of the Church. Ostensibly socialist, at least in its rhetoric, it identified the Church as an agent of repression and proceeded to do much, though not everything in its power to weaken the institution. It thus became Graham Greene’s mission in The Lawless Roads to seek out and catalogue examples of this repression, to describe them and cry foul, alongside the foul food, the foul bureaucracy, the foul government, etc. As a result – and especially so compared to Graham Greene’s other books – The Lawless Roads is nauseatingly one-sided, unsubtle and ultimately predictable.
The book, however, does give some insight into the author’s religious conservatism and orthodoxy, a side of Graham Greene that in other books is only glimpsed. Elsewhere he may allude to his Roman Catholic faith, or even imply we should take it for granted, alongside his overall Christianity and suppressed guilt, but here all of this is up front for all to see. Much of the time, there is little else on view. Graham Greene admitted to using drugs, often drinking too much and availing himself of whatever sexual experiences he came to hand, so for him the confessional was an explicit and regular requirement. He was also generally sympathetic towards popular movements and revolution.
But not in Mexico, because there it violated Our Lady The Church. Greene’s reaction, given the general socialism that is usually ascribed to his outlook, reveals deep idiosyncrasy, perhaps even bigotry. On finishing The Lawless Roads we feel we know much more about the author’s enigmatic character, knowledge that will offer perspective on his other work.