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About the Author
David Rieff is a journalist and writer whose books include At the Point of a Gun and Slaughterhouse.
Date of Birth:October 2, 1904
Date of Death:April 3, 1991
Place of Birth:Berkhamsted, England
Place of Death:Vevey, Switzerland
Education:Balliol College, Oxford
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ACROSS THE RIVER
The border means more than a customs house, a passport officer, a man with a gun. Over there everything is going to be different; life is never going to be quite the same again after your passport has been stamped and you find yourself speechless among the money-changers. The man seeking scenery imagines strange woods and unheard-of mountains; the romantic believes that the women over the border will be more beautiful and complaisant than those at home; the unhappy man imagines at least a different hell; the suicidal traveller expects the death he never finds. The atmosphere of the border — it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin. When people die on the border they call it "a happy death."
The money-changers' booths in Laredo formed a whole street, running downhill to the international bridge; then they ran uphill on the other side into Mexico, just the same but a little shabbier. What makes a tourist choose one money-changer rather than another? The same prices were chalked up all the way down to the slow brown river — "3.50 pesos for a dollar"; "3.50 pesos for a dollar." Perhaps they death." look at the faces, but the faces were all the same too — half-caste faces.
I had imagined a steady stream of tourist cars going across from America on this side into Mexico over there, but there wasn't one. Life seemed to pile up like old cans and boots against a breakwater; you were part of the silt yourself. A man in San Antonio had said I'd be sure to find a car going down, and an agent near the bridge-head said that was right — he knew for a fact that there was a Mexican driving down from San Antonio ("in a fine German car") who would give me a seat to Mexico City for a few dollars. I waited and waited and of course he never turned up; I don't think he even existed, though why they should have wanted to keep me on their side of the river I don't know. They weren't getting any money out of me.
Every half-hour I walked down to the river bank and looked at Mexico; it looked just the same as where I was — I could see the money-changers' booths running uphill through the heat and a kind of mass of people near the bridge-head — the silt washing up on their side of the breakwater too. I could imagine their saying over there: "There's an American going from Monterrey to New York in a fine German car. He'll give you a seat for a few dollars"; and people like me were waiting on the other side, staring across the Rio Grande at the money-changers and thinking: "That's the United States," waiting for a traveller who didn't exist at all. It was like looking at yourself in a mirror.
Over there — one argued to oneself — were Chichen Itzá and Mitla and Palenque, the enormous tombstones of history, the archæologist's Mexico; serapes and big hats and Spratling silver from Taxco to delight the tourist; for the historian relics of Cortés and the Conquistadores; for the art critic the Rivera and Orozco frescoes; and for the business man there were the oil-fields of Tampico, the silver-mines of Pachuca, the coffee-farms in Chiapas, and the banana groves of Tabasco. For the priest prison, and for the politician a bullet. You could buy a great deal for your dollar, everyone said.
I walked back up to the plaza and bought a paper. It was my unlucky day. The paper was being edited by the high school students — guest editors and guest reporters; it was full of small-town gossip and what was muttered on the campus. Impatient, revolutionary young men and women? Not a bit of it. The platitudes of age are often the main discoveries of youth. Geneva ... democracy ... popular fronts ... the threat of Fascism. One might as well have been in the Albert Hall. As for Mexico, there wasn't as much news of it here as in New York. In New York there had been stories of fighting across the border from Brownsville — a man called General Rodríguez had organized discontented farmers — they were losing their land to the Indians under the Agrarian Laws — into a Fascist body called the Gold Shirts. The New York papers had sent down special reporters: one of them had taken a taxi from Brownsville to Matamoros and back and reported he'd seen no fighting, but a lot of discontent. One pictured the earnest tough face peering through the glass at discontent on the dry plain. Somebody in New York told me General Rodríguez had forty thousand trained men on the Texas border — I'd be missing everything if I missed Rodríguez.
You get used in Mexico to disappointment — a town seems fine at evening and then in daylight the corruption seeps through, a road peters out, a muleteer doesn't turn up, the great man on acquaintance becomes strangely muted, and when you get to the gigantic ruins you are too tired to see them. It was that way with Rodríguez. He came to nothing.
The night before I had been in San Antonio. That's Texas, and Texas seemed to be half Mexico already — and half Will Rogers. In the train from New Orleans a Texan in the car talked continuously in the Will Rogers voice, the commercial drawl, the small-town complacent wisdom. All through the night the proverbs welled out full of fake kindliness and superficial truth — a Metro-Goldwyn philosophy. And a New Mexican with an exotic shirt covered with polka dots and an untrustworthy mestizo face talked back, neither paying attention to the other, all through the night talking at a tangent over the hip flasks.
The brown and convex plains spread out on either side of the car, and oil flared on the horizon like the flames on a sacrificial pyramid, and the New World and the Old World talked in the carriage. That is really the only thing that journeys give you — talk. There is so much weariness and disappointment in travel that people have to open up — in railway-trains, over a fire, on the decks of steamers, and in the palm courts of hotels on a rainy day. They have to pass the time somehow, and they can pass it only with themselves. Like the characters in Chekhov they have no reserves — you learn the most intimate secrets. You get an impression of a world peopled by eccentrics, of odd professions, almost incredible stupidities, and, to balance them, amazing endurances.
While the Texan talked across the car, my neighbour stared out of the window. He had a sensitive sick face, an air of settled melancholy. He looked like a Victorian with religious doubts, somebody like Clough, but he had no side-whiskers and his hands were practical hands — not the pretty useless hands of a writer or a theologian. He said he had been travelling for eight thousand miles, all round the United States by train in a great loop. One more loop and he'd be home, somewhere a hundred miles from San Francisco. It was his first holiday for three years, but he wouldn't be sorry when it was over.
He talked gently, with difficulty, staring moodily out at the Texan plain. It seemed that he hadn't spoken to anyone much for three years. He lived alone and he couldn't see people at his job. Now he was going back for another three years' loneliness. I wondered what his job could be to make him a hermit within a hundred miles of San Francisco. "You see," he said, "you're at it night and day. You can't trust a hired man. The birds are so sensitive they get nervous and sick if a stranger's around."
It appeared that he bred turkeys, living alone with his flock of eleven hundred. They lived in the fields and he lived in an auto trailer, sleeping wherever his turkeys chose to sleep, bumping after them till they settled at sunset. He had a gun under the pillow and his dogs warned him if there was a thief or a wild dog near. Sometimes he was awakened four times in a night and never knew what he would have to face, an armed hobo or just a skulking dog. The first year or two he'd slept pretty badly. Well, in another three years maybe he'd have saved enough money to go into a business which would allow him to enjoy life, see people, marry (you couldn't expect a girl to live in a trailer alone with him and eleven hundred turkeys).
"What sort of business?"
He turned his sad inward-looking eyes away from the dark plain and the flaming oil. "Breeding chickens. They're stationary."
In the day San Antonio is more Mexican than American, not quite genuine Mexican (it is far too clean for that) but picture postcard Mexican. The sermon was preached in Spanish in the Catholic cathedral, while electric fans revolved above statues representing in their pale colours and plaster poses the most noble and fragile sentiments. As for the congregation, they were like pictures in early Victorian albums: the black mantillas and the small vivid pointed faces might have come out of Lady Blessington's Book of Beauty. The San Antonio River is wound cunningly through the town like a pattern on a valentine (does it make a heart?) with little waterfalls and ferny banks. Just as when you read a keepsake album —
To me more dear than all their rich perfume
The chaste camellia's pure and spotless bloom —
you have the sensation in San Antonio by day of the world's being deliciously excluded. Original sin under the spell of elegance has lost its meaning. Where, I thought, loitering on a bridge above the little tamed river, was there any sign of that "terrible aboriginal calamity" which Newman perceived everywhere? This — during the day — was the perfect ivory tower. The horror and the beauty of human life were both absent. It was a passing sensation, for the ivory tower has its own horror: the terrifying egoism of exclusion.
But you had only to open a paper to escape from that vacuum — or to take a bus into the dreary hovels of the Mexican West Side, where the pecan workers live who shell pecan nuts by hand for a few cents a day. Nowhere in Mexico did I see quite so extreme a poverty. In Mexico the standard of living is appallingly low outside the great towns, but here that low standard lay next door to the American standard: the West Side hovels were mocked by the Plaza Hotel soaring yellowly up to scrape against the sky. There are one hundred and forty-seven pecan shelleries lying discreetly out of sight in San Antonio and they shell in a good year twenty-one million pounds of nuts — a fairsized industry. Wages had been cut recently by a cent a pound, which meant that a pecan worker could earn from thirty cents to a dollar and fifty cents a day at most. With the help of a Mexican priest, Father Lopez, the pecan workers organized a strike, though later Father Lopez retired from the directing of the strike when the Communists took it over.
This strike was the first example I had come across of genuine Catholic Action on a social issue, a real attempt, led by the old, fiery, half-blind Archbishop, to put into force the papal encyclicals which have condemned capitalism quite as strongly as Communism. But the Vatican has been many years ahead of the bishops and the laity — for years the Pope has had to meet a kind of passive resistance from the Church. (He has himself referred to the Catholic employers who in one place succeeded in preventing the reading of the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in the churches.) Spain may have awakened the social conscience, but you cannot expect a perfect technique all at once. There was something a little pathetic about Catholic Action in San Antonio. Father Lopez had been outmanuvred, and now the Church was trying to negotiate a settlement between workers and employers on the dubious line that the employers should open their books for the workers' representatives and if those books did not justify a cut, the cut should be restored. There was a meeting in the Mexican Park — a dry drab plain of trampled earth and a few bandstands and benches and a swing or two. An orchestra of young Catholic ladies played cheerful and sedate airs, and then the old Archbishop and Father Lopez spoke. In the audience there were two hundred workers and a few American ladies with the fussed air of energetic slummers. There was bad management with the microphone, so that you couldn't hear much; it was very hot; and the young American girls looked pale and weak and self-conscious before the dark sensual confident faces of the half-castes — who knew instinctively, you felt, all the beauty and the horror of the flesh.
The intention was good, of course, but the performance was deplorable. You compared it mentally with the soapbox orator and the Red Flag and a crowd singing the "Internationale." Catholicism, one felt, had to rediscover the technique of revolution — it wasn't practised here among the pale violinists. And these fussy and prosperous women who stood about in little groups segregated from the workers by a few feet of dusty floor and an abyss of the spirit — good souls, I am sure, but a little too anxious that the Archbishop should have a favourable reception and not be overtired — how would they, one wondered, have reacted to the words of St. James (quoted by the present Pope in one of his latest encyclicals) : "Go to now, ye rich men: weep and howl in your miseries which shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be for a testimony against you, and shall eat your flesh like fire ..."? Those are the words of revolution — not the dim promise that account books shall be inspected (how can a Mexican worker living on thirty-five cents a day trust an account book?).
That night I went into a freak show in a little booth near where the West Side begins. America is entrenched around the Plaza and dies slowly out in miniature Broadways, skyscraper lights in the smooth southern sky, towards the pioneering edge of town — wooden houses and raw shows and the brothels in Matamoros Street where the hold-ups happen nightly and the local paper prints a column of them at the week-ends — the kind of city to which you picture men returning in the old days with a bag of gold for a rough and quick good time.
One didn't need a bag of gold for the freak show; one got an awful amount for ten cents in the little stuffy booth. I was the only person there; I had a sense that nobody had been for a long while — it couldn't really compete with Matamoros Street — the dry exhibits were dusty with neglect. There were a Siamese sheep — eight legs sticking out like octopus tentacles — and calves with so-called human heads (like those of morons), and dogs created upside down rolling glass eyeballs towards legs that sprouted from somewhere near the backbone, and "a frog baby born to a lady in Oklahoma."
But the high points of the exhibition were two dead gangsters — Dutch Kaplan and Oklahoma Jim, his henchman, lying in open coffins, mummified. Jim was dressed in rusty black, with a loose fly button and the jacket open to disclose the brown hollow arch of the breast, and his former leader was naked except for a black cloth across the loins. The showman lifted it to disclose the dry, dusty, furry private parts. He showed the two scars upon the groin through which the taxidermist had removed all that was corruptible and put his fingers there (an awful parody of St. Thomas) and urged me to do the same — it was lucky to touch the body of a criminal. He put his finger in the bullet-hole where the brains had been blasted out and touched the dingy hair. I asked him where they got the bodies from. The question irritated him. "The Crime Prevention League," he said, and changed the subject, leading me to a curtain at the booth's end. For another ten cents, he said, I could see examples of abortion, "very instructive," and a poster challenged me — "Can You Take It?" I didn't try: I was satisfied with the frog baby.
It isn't really any comfort to tell yourself that these things are probably ingenious fakes (a man with a little tail was a relic of Barnum's show); even so the fact remains that they were created by man to satisfy some horrifying human need for ugliness.
I came out again, and a little way down the flaring street America died into the dark: across waste ground, between the dimly lit saloons, Mexican labourers converged fingering guitars, picking their way across the hewn-up edge-of-town earth. I went into a variety show and saw dancers like guerrilla horses pounding across a plain: a woman stamped and sang, setting a gold-plated crucifix swinging round her neck. All round were advertisements of the next week's film — ¿Quién Es la Eterna Mártir?
("Whose sad face on the cross sees only this
After the passion of a thousand years.")(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lawless Roads"
Copyright © 1967 Graham Greene Estate.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Border,
2. The Rebel State,
3. Notes in Mexico City,
4. To the Coast,
5. Voyage in the Dark,
6. The Godless State,
7. Into Chiapas,
8. A Village in Chiapas,
9. Across the Mountains to Las Casas,
10. Holy Week,
11. Return to the City,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Graham Greene was a deeply religious man. When he was commissioned to write of the Mexican government's forced anti-Catholic secularization and anti-clerical purges he traveled to the country to see for himself what effects this had on the people. Churches were being destroyed and clergymen were being driven into exile or brutally murdered at an alarming rate. As Greene traveled to the areas where the Catholic persecutions were the most violent Greene was deeply affected and reaches an almost despondent state. It is hard to tell if his depression was cause by an inability to connect to people and culture of Mexico (his Spanish was limited and their English was nonexistent), his on-going illness or the inability to open his mind beyond his own colonialism. In the end Mexico was a country he could barely wait to escape.