Sunday, May 05, 2019

Roads most Lawless

As a veteran of visits to over 50 countries, I have consistently listed Russia, Japan and Mexico as the three most deeply satisfying of this private collection. Yet all three also have their flaws, some of which also run pretty deep. 

As Graham Greene put it: "History in Mexico has to be very ancient before you feel safe from its influence."

One of the great pleasures of reading Greene's The Lawless Roads, the thoroughly ill-tempered account of his trip to Mexico in 1937, is the dawning realisation that this sort of travelogue could never find a publisher today. 

Now, I love Mexico, yet recognise that  a certain amount of controlled xenophobia is as much a part of the travel experience as is watching the World Cup every four years. 

Contemporary travellers appear obliged to be nice about the places they visit. And along the way show themselves in the best possible light as well. Selfie, selfie, selfie. Graham Greene did neither of these things. 

It would be fair to say that the dislike he developed for this destination quickly became mutual. I laughed out loud at his account of his recollection of how he would sit alone in the Parque Central at San Cristóbal de las Casas as passers-by took turns to strafe him with insults. “It was like being the one unpopular boy at school.” 

Even the wildlife seemed out to get him. His account of a mule trip (with dysentery) to Palenque - by which of course he was thoroughly unimpressed  - is hilarious. 

It is also worth remembering that the end result of all this discomfort was a masterpiece: The Power and the Glory. 

Herewith some of the choicest sound-bites from this book...

“Some emanation from the evil Aztec soil seems suddenly to seize the brain like drunkenness, then the pistol comes out.”

“The appalling strangeness of a land which should have been over the world’s edge.”

“All the monuments in Mexico are to violent deaths.”

“Hideous peasant pottery in the shops.”

“And seventy per cent of these people are real savages, quite as much as they were three hundred years ago. The Spanish-Mexican population just rots on top of the black savage mass.”

“I have never been in a country where you are more aware all the time of hate...cynicism, a distrust of men’s motives, is the accepted ideology.”

“How one begins to hate these people – the intense slowness of that monolithic black-clothed old woman with the grey straggly hair – removing a tick–blowing her nose – trying to put up a blind or open a lemonade bottle, mooing with her mouth wide, fixing her eyes on people meaninglessly for minutes at a time, slowly revolving her black bulk all of a piece like a mule. And that middle-class child in the black velvet shorts, the striped jersey, and the bright-coloured jockey cap. The hideous inexpressiveness of brown eyes. People never seem to help each other in small ways, removing a parcel from a seat, making room with their legs. They just sit about. If Spain is like this, I can understand the temptation to massacre.”

“One did want, I found, an English book in this hating and hateful country."

"There was nothing in this country so beautiful as an English village.”

“There was nothing to do all day but drink warm expensive beer in the only cantina.”

“A land where you grow weary of black and oily hair and brown sentimental eyes.”

“It is true what their admirers write of the Mexicans, that they are always cheerful whatever their circumstances; but there is something horribly immature in their cheeriness: no sense of human responsibility; it is all one with the pistol-shot violence.”

“That Mexican façade of bonhomie–the embrace, the spar, the joke – with which they hide from themselves the cruelty and treachery of their life."

On the capital: "The shops full of tourist junk, silver filigree and gourds and rugs and dead fleas dressed up as little people inside walnuts, all the fake smartness and gaiety, El Retiro and the Cucaracha Bar and the Palace of Art, the Avenida Juárez smelling of sweets, and all the hidden hate."

On the Cops: “The dirty whitewashed walls, the greasy hammocks, and the animal faces of the men – it wasn’t like law and order so much as banditry.”

On Mexican food: “It is all a hideous red and yellow, green and brown, like art needlework and the sort of cushions popular among decayed gentlewomen in Cotswold teashops.”

On Tequila: “The spirit made from agave, a rather inferior schnapps.”

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