Rediscovering Graham Greene’s lawless roads and mapless journeys.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
A new 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.
I first read Journey after I returned from a trip to West Africa that was as disastrous and uncomfortable, in its own way, as Greene’s. As I read, I realized I had felt in West Africa much as Greene had. Horror was followed by a dim sense of recognition as I interviewed Kamajoh fighters, members of traditional Sierra Leone hunting societies who, under the influence of drugs and the power of suggestion, entered battle with the conviction that they were invulnerable. Jung, of course, had a name for this impersonal yet familiar sensation: the collective unconscious.
Such sentiments are persona non grata in these days of cultural relativism fostered by anthropologists and left-wing literary critics. And the brutal honesty that made Greene a great writer seems problematic for the writers who introduce these editions, who are, as it happens, all white males of uncertain age. Christopher Hitchens lambasted Greene for contrived plots and reactionary politics in The Atlantic after writing an introduction to the Penguin Classics deluxe-edition reissue of Orient Express. David Rieff uneasily notes Greene’s emphasis on self in The Lawless Roads, although he does a masterly job of pointing out the book’s salient aspects.
Paul Theroux is most unwilling to let Greene be Greene. With the didacticism of the Peace Corps volunteer he once was, Theroux accuses Greene of clinging to boys’ adventure stories in his rendering of West Africa. “This fanciful supposition of the heroic-romantic in a pith helmet, that l’Afrique profonde contains glittering mysteries, is one of the reasons our view of Africa has been so distorted,” he complains in his introduction to Journey Without Maps.
Yet it is Theroux himself who seems prey to a boy’s idea of adventure. He mocks Greene for traveling to West Africa with his 24-year-old cousin Barbara, who made it through the grueling trip in fine health and decent spirits. Worse still, he accuses Greene of choosing Barbara either because he was having an affair with her or because a male companion might have pointed out his inadequacies as an expedition leader. As if a woman wouldn’t?
In fact, what’s refreshing about Greene in our era, in which the hairy-chested tale of adventure remains a publishing staple, is that he remained the awkward boy who shirked “sport” at public school. His sensitivity serves him well as a not-so-innocent abroad. In Journey Without Maps, Greene’s portraits of his Sierra Leonean porters are true in their detail and deeply touching, made more so by his acknowledgment of the sometimes-cruel mistakes he made because of his inexperience.
As Theroux points out, a writer intimate with a place will write one book; a writer enthralled by the shock of the new will produce another. Just as the expansion of global trade, including the slave trade, produced a commercialization of the exotic in the 18th century, so the current wave of globalization has produced a similar fad for the exotic in our time. Only now the exotic must have the stamp of authenticity. It is not enough to be a weedy British fellow traveling in Africa. One must have the inside dope, or better still, be African oneself, whether white or black.
Greene himself wrote a preface to accompany the second edition of Journey Without Maps after he had returned to live in Sierra Leone while working for British intelligence in the 1940s. His feelings about the country had changed, he noted, and he expressed some misgivings about his portrayal of the place, but he noted that fallacies arise just as prolifically from a close acquaintance with a place. He let the earlier work stand.
It seems ironic that rigid adherence to political correctness emphasizes the differences between people, sometimes to the exclusion of the common experience of being human. Greene was a good enough writer, and a good enough reporter, to render both with art and precision. At the end of Journey Without Maps, he wrote: “But what had astonished me about Africa was that it had never been really strange…The ‘heart of darkness’ was common to us both.”