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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Graham Greene

There had been one priest over the border in Chiapas, but the people had told him to go - they couldn’t protect him any longer.
‘And when you die?’ I said.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘we die like dogs.’ No religious ceremony was allowed at the grave.

Halftone illustration entitled 'In Chiapas' depicting a church in the middleground with a stone wall in the foreground. Opening also includes title page.Frontispiece and title page from Graham Greene's The lawless roads (London, 1939).The novelist Graham Greene (1904-91) travelled to Mexico in 1938 to witness the effects of the recent anti-Catholic purges. By the time of Greene's visit some of the worst excesses of this persecution were over and the country, under its president Lázaro Cárdenas, was approaching some measure of stability, but Greene, a Catholic convert, particularly wished to visit those states of Mexico where it was still forbidden to receive the Sacrament in public and where priests served in hiding, in fear of their lives.

In the puritanical secular state of Tabasco Greene found that in every town and village the churches had been destroyed by the paramilitary camisas rojas (red shirts). He noted that one of the effects of destroying a church was to deprive the poor of the one building which they could freely enter to seek respite from the unrelenting heat of the Mexican sun.

The lawless roads is Greene's record of his Mexican trip. Nearly everything he encountered - the heat, the dirt, disease and poverty, the violence and corruption, even the food - appalled him. Yet it was precisely from such environments of squalor and political instability that Greene drew much of his literary inspiration, and his Mexican journey was to result not only in The lawless roads but in one of his best works, The power and the glory (1940), which tells of the moral struggles and eventual execution of an unnamed and fallible hero, an alcoholic priest in one of Mexico's repressively secular states.

'I loathed Mexico - but there were times when it seemed as if there were worse places' is one of Greene's more favourable comments about the country, but on his return to London he was able to see some merits in the Mexican psyche:

Mass in Chelsea seemed curiously fictitious; no peon knelt with his arms out in the attitude of the cross: no woman dragged herself up the aisle on her knees ... We do not mortify ourselves. Perhaps we are in need of violence.

In 1939 that need would soon be met.

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