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Posts Tagged ‘Lawless Roads’

A World Unto Itself: Riding the Iron Rooster through China

Friday, March 26, 2010 @ 07:03 PM  posted by Mark

Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster begins like the first book in our Around the World and Into the Past series, Graham Greene’s The Lawless Roads, with a long train journey to the author’s eventual destination. In Greene’s case, the journey began in Austin, Texas, and wound circuitously down to Chiapas; in Theroux’s case, his year-long journey around the interior of China in 1988 starts in London. Vowing not to fly on his journey, in order to understand the true distance and foreignness of China, Theroux takes rail jaunts across France and Central Europe to the Trans-Siberian Express to the Trans-Mongolian, eventually finding his way to the Shanxi Province of Northern China. There, he begins twelve months of vagabonding, taking in major cities and rural backwaters, unwittingly at a critical moment in modern Chinese history: just before the Tiananmen Square Protests.

Theroux finds a paradoxical China, ill at ease with its own internal contradictions but nevertheless unified by an Orwellian bureaucracy that rules with an iron fist. Nearly everywhere Theroux goes, authorities force him to play their favorite game, whose name translates roughly as “making up new rules on the spot.” Theroux finds that Mao and his successors have wrapped the country in red tape like a Gang of Christos turning China into a communist art installation; yet, he also sees clear evidence of the liberalizing free market reforms that would eventually turn China into the industrial powerhouse that currently owns 25% of U.S. debt. Theroux writes that “the Chinese are the last people in the world still manufacturing spittoons, chamber pots, treadle sewing machines, bed warmers, quill pens, wooden yokes for oxen, iron plows, sit-up-and-beg bicycles, steam engines and the 1948 Packard car.” A mere twenty years later, though, they would be making cutting edge technological gadgets for export to the West, entering into manufacturing partnerships with European and American companies such as Beijing Benz-DaimlerChrysler.

Everywhere Theroux goes, he finds paradoxes: tiny local free markets operating parallel to the central command economy; local cultures and languages thriving alongside the dominant, homogenizing Mandarin and Cantonese cultures; and a simultaneous veneration and contempt for authority among the everyday people he encounters.

Theroux is a charming guide, by turns gruff, worldly-wise, perplexed, and arrogant, and he’s game to try almost anything but the black carrots in Mongolia. He escorts us around a local bazaar in the Uighur town of Turshan, listens to complaints about the Cultural Revolution in Shanghai’s People’s Park, and ascends to the vast plateau of Tibet, where he sympathizes with the Tibetan independence movement. Along the way, he gives us lessons in Chinese etiquette, agronomy and traditional folk beliefs, and he even reads a smuggled copy of a medieval pornographic novel banned by the government but not, after all, very pornographic by Western standards.

Theroux’s journey itself is interesting, and the author is an engaging storyteller; but what makes Riding the Iron Rooster so interesting today is the snapshot it captures of a remote culture still mired in post-colonial politics, but poised for its starring appearance on the world economic stage.

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The Lawless Roads of Southern Mexico

Thursday, March 11, 2010 @ 04:03 PM  posted by Mark

The British publishing company Longman commissioned Graham Greene to travel to the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 1938, to investigate the anti-Catholic purges of President Plutarco Elias Calles. Greene’s assignment, more specifically, was to write a report about the reactions of the Catholic people there to the assassination of some 40 priests and the destruction of hundreds of churches, and to determine the state of the faith under the repressive regime. Greene had written eight novels, a book of poetry and an African travel book by this time, and he was a practicing Catholic himself, so he must have seemed an ideal candidate to take the lay of the land, but it’s hard to imagine that he completely grasped the difficulties he would encounter when he took the assignment. Granted, no one goes to a violent anti-clerical purge expecting a party, but Greene found the chaos in southern Mexico issuing from both the government and private organizations, and from right-wing and left-wing factions alike.

A more dour, grim, contemptuous travelogue than The Lawless Roads is difficult to imagine. The political instability puts Greene in many uncomfortable if not outright dangerous situations: the Calles government was pro-labor, and the United States called him a Bolshevik, yet the governors of Tabasco and Chiapas employed fascist paramilitary groups to enforce their own private orders, and Greene encounters more than one private citizen who identifies with Hitler and/or Franco. Corrupt generals in Mexico’s army also kept private armed forces to confiscate resources as they saw fit. While Greene is traveling south, Calles nationalizes the foreign oil companies exploiting Mexico’s new petroleum wealth, causing an international uproar and threats of war. The ordinary people Greene meets along the way seem resigned to their powerlessness in this atmosphere of unpredictable violence. However, Greene’s narrative concentrates as much on the strangeness of everyday life as it does on the revolutionary political events sweeping Mexico.

Greene spends much of his time waiting—waiting for a boat to take him by sea from Veracruz to Tabasco, waiting for a barge to convey him upriver to Villahermosa, waiting for a plane to carry him to Salto, waiting for a mule to ride to Las Casas, and he waits most of the time in torrential rains and stifling heat. When his waiting pays off, the travel is treacherous: the boat to Tabasco is barely seaworthy, overloaded and foul, and Greene spends the overnight journey vomiting; the barge to Villahermosa is incompetently piloted and runs aground three times; the plane has a faulty engine and is forced to fly between mountains instead of over them. Greene waits nearly a week for another plane to Las Casas, but it never arrives, so he is forced to hire an inexperienced mule guide to escort him on a four-day ride through the mountains, where he constantly encounters armed men of uncertain politics and where rains routinely wash out the trail. Oddly, factoring in the unreliable air traffic schedule, a mule ride from Salto to Las Casas costs more and takes less time than the plane trip would have.

Everywhere along the way, Greene meets hapless Americans, cynical Mexicans, a surprising number of Germans and Norwegians, and Catholics of all nationalities who have been driven to underground Masses by the religious persecution. Only in Las Casas, Chiapas, during Easter Week, do people worship openly—and most of the worshipers who defy the ban on celebrating Mass are Indians, who seem unaware of the ban in the first place. These Indians practice a hybrid of Catholicism and native religions that Greene finds both frightening and alluring.

Greene is openly reviled as a Gringo in Las Casas, yet he finds enough friends among the underground priests to escape serious confrontations. Despite Greene’s stature as an established author, it’s difficult to imagine that his fame had spread as far as southern Mexico by 1938, yet bishops and generals routinely grant his requests for interviews, and he seems to travel under a kind of magic protection, bestowed on him as much by his irrelevance as his journalistic credentials.

The Lawless Roads is witty and sour, and Greene involves you intimately and sympathetically with the everyday people he meets. He occasionally falls into colonial smugness, but most of his observations are keen and commiserative, and the portrait he paints—of people resigned to endure the whims of powerful tyrants that they have no hope of defying—is engaging. The Catholics, like everyone else in southern Mexico at that time (and now), carry on despite the oppressions and corruption of local government leaders.

When he left Mexico and returned to England, Greene found that the Mass in his home church felt curiously fictitious compared to the furtive, secret Masses he had celebrated in Chiapas. Later, he would describe this trip as the real beginning of his conversion to Catholicism, which he thought of ever afterward as a sustaining faith to people who have no other worldly place to turn for consolation.

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Around the World & Into the Past

Wednesday, March 10, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

For the last couple of centuries, our changing attitudes about travel have mirrored the effects of globalization: starting with the Industrial Revolution, as cultures worldwide became more technological, travel for average Western Europeans and Americans came to mean enrichment rather than danger. Travel once meant only hardship and adventure, the prospect of unpredictable and possibly life-threatening difficulties from which you might never return—normal people did not travel long distances in the seventeenth century, for example, and explorers and other world travelers were likely to be mad as hatters. As more of the globe became known and modern conveniences (like disposable income, internal combustion and industrial agriculture) spread, the idea of travel became associated with pleasure rather than risk, and it became a mark of cultivation to travel great distances to other cultures and return to tell the tale.

With the framework of the increasing ease of travel in mind, I’ve selected a series of six travel books and one film that will take us both around the world and into the past—a past recent enough to contain most of the elements of daily life that we all recognize, yet just distant enough to involve real dangers that the modern traveler can generally avoid these days (or at least avoid personal contact with): dangers of disease, life-threatening poverty and incomprehensible local political squabbles into which the traveler may stumble accidentally. Encounters in these narratives are just as commonly friendly and curious as they are suspicious, mistrustful or terrifying.

We’ll begin tomorrow with Graham Greene‘s The Lawless Roads, the narrative of a 1938 journey to the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas, where the Calles government was systematically killing Catholic priests, destroying churches and suppressing religion. Then we’ll take a walking tour through central Spain just after World War II with Nobel Prize winner Camilo Jose Cela, in his Journey to the Alcarria. Next, we’ll jump to Italy as Jan Morris takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of the long past and strange present of a cultural crossroads in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Making a hard right turn at the Balkans, we’ll head down to the Democratic Republic of Congo to explore a pure and horrifying example of modern colonialism in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, after which we’ll journey by train through China with Paul Theroux in Riding the Iron Rooster, the tale of a trip Theroux took in 1989 but which feels a hundred years older because of the vast economic changes that have happened recently in China. Our one film in the series is next, with the John Boorman true-life adventure Beyond Rangoon, starring Patricia Arquette as an American Doctor in Myanmar whose life changes radically when she encounters the democratic political movement of Aung San Suu Kyi. Finally, we’ll jump and skip through the islands of Polynesia, as James C. Simmons tells us about early European and American explorers who lost their way in the South Pacific, finding sometimes heaven and sometimes hell, in Castaways in Paradise.

If you know the books and movie already, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them; if you don’t, I hope you’ll be inspired to take some of these journeys with me from the comfort of your favorite easy chair. The train leaves from this platform tomorrow, for Mexico.

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