By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Anew generation has become familiar with Graham Greene’s fiction because of the recent films based on his novels The End of the Affair and The Quiet American, but his nonfiction has just as much profundity and panache. This summer, Penguin reissued two works of nonfiction by Greene, both of which in certain respects feel more contemporary than his fiction. Journey Without Maps is an account of the first trip Greene made to “a blank spot on the map,” in this case, the West African bush. The Lawless Roads is about his next adventure, to southern Mexico in the 1930s after the government had outlawed Catholicism.
The joy of reading Greene, particularly if you’ve been anywhere near the places he writes about, and these include his inner landscape of disquiet, is his freedom from the political correctness that infects contemporary writing about the developing world. Reading Greene makes one realize how thoroughly writers have adopted the notion that they can’t say anything negative about a country poorer than their own, unless it is European and its inhabitants white. The fact that this is both racist and dishonest seems to elude us, and our writing is the poorer for it.
Greene, by contrast, has the courage of his impressions. His sense of horror is reserved for human failure, not birth or skin color. “Grown men cannot meet in the street without sparring like schoolboys,” he wrote about Mexico. “One must be as a little child, we are told, to enter the kingdom of heaven, but they have passed childhood and remain for ever in a cruel anarchic adolescence.”
Every country, every culture, has its unique forms of pleasure and brutality, and Greene, marked by ostracism as a schoolboy, had an infallible ability to sniff them out.
As David Rieff points out in his introduction to The Lawless Roads, one of the most contemporary aspects of Greene’s nonfiction is the inclusion of the mental landscape as counterpoint. A sensitive boy who rather ineffectually tried to commit suicide, Greene was sent to a Jungian analyst while still a teenager. Greene writes about his dreams, describes his loneliness, and makes intuitive leaps across culture, history and art. The opening of Roads excavates Greene’s unconscious in a way that feels risky even now, such as when he describes a scene outside the school where his father was headmaster, contrasting the suffused quiet of a lawn with the oppressive presence of the school buildings: “One became aware of God with an intensity — time hung suspended — music lay on the air; anything might happen before it became necessary to join the crowd across the border. There was no inevitability anywhere . . . faith was almost great enough to move mountains . . . the great buildings rocked in the darkness.”
The opposing images from childhood set in motion the book’s central conflicts: Greene’s own tidal relationship with Christianity, which is mirrored by Mexico’s, and, on a larger scale, humanity’s contradictory impulses toward purity and sin.
Because Greene’s writing is so elegant, the occasional lapses into journalese are startling. They are more noticeable in The Lawless Roads than in Journey Without Maps. For the most part, though, he manages to enlarge on his journalism background, commenting in Lawless, for instance, that corruption and greed are qualities not exclusive to Mexico’s police force and ruling elite: “It wasn’t merely an Indian general in an obscure state of a backward country . . . I remembered the game called ‘Monopoly’ they were playing at home with counters and dice . . . where the land is sold for building estates and the little villas go up on wounded clay with garages like tombs.” Making connections like this is the job of a travel writer. But Greene is clearly more than a travel writer, even in that term’s most capacious sense. Part philosopher, part hard-boiled mystery writer, part memoirist, Greene is the epitome of a restless intellect. In the beginning of Journey Without Maps, he frankly acknowledges a debt to Conrad, Freud and Jung. He writes of “the sense of nostalgia for something lost . . . a stage further back.”
There are times of impatience, when one is less content to rest at the urban stage, when one is willing to suffer some discomfort for the chance of finding — there are a thousand names for it, King Solomon’s Mines, the “heart of darkness” if one is romantically inclined, or more simply, as Herr Heuser puts it in his African novel, The Inner Journey, one’s place in time, based on a knowledge not only of one’s present but of the past from which one has emerged.
“A quality of darkness is needed, of the inexplicable,” Greene writes. “This Africa may take the form of an unexplained brutality . . .”
Twenty years ago, this might have sounded outdated or racist. But in the 1990s, civil society in Liberia and Sierra Leone dissolved under the strain of protracted civil strife. These countries became known for the amputations of the arms and legs of civilians and the impressments of child soldiers, once again evoking an aspect of humanity that is difficult to acknowledge.