Journal of Modern Literature 26.2 (2003) 113-128
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Graham Greene and Latin America
"If one takes a side, one takes a side, come what may," Graham Greene wrote in his memoir Getting to Know the General.1 He was speaking about what he called his "involvement" with Panama's General Omar Torrijos, but his comment applies equally well to his general involvement with the politics of Latin America. By the time of his death in 1989, Greene's long-standing, ever-deepening interest in Latin America had developed from the touristic to the analytical to the polemical. It was an interest that had begun with a 1938 visit to Mexico that resulted in a travel narrative and a novel. In the 1950s and 1960s, his visits to Haiti, Cuba, and Paraguay produced four novels and several essays. Finally, his trips to Chile (1972), to Panama (1976 to 1983), and to Nicaragua (1980 to 1986) culminated in one more novel (his last), a series of articles, a book-length memoir, and several letters to The Times arguing for the support of governments and causes that he found admirable in Latin America. His visits to Latin America, he said in an interview, "brought with them a political commitment in a number of ways."2 In his later years, Greene had indeed taken a side.
In his work on Latin America, Greene revisited and reworked four major themes: religion, politics, anti-American sentiment, and militarism. A review of these themes reveals the insistent and yet elusive sensibility that informed Greene's interest in the region. Once taken into account, this sensibility necessarily alters some of the more extreme assumptions of those critics who find in Greene's fiction a generic, savage landscape (sometimes referred to as "Greeneland") that is more imaginary than real. Rejecting the implication that his settings were purely fictional, Greene insisted that the world he wrote about was "carefully and accurately described."3 [End Page 113]
So much has been written about Greene's Catholicism that it seems unnecessary to treat the matter further. Nevertheless, religion was a frequent theme in Greene's writings about Latin America (the countries are, of course, predominantly Catholic), and what Greene had to say about the practice of religion as he found it in the countries of Latin America, particularly the emphasis he placed on the Church's political activism, does add to an understanding of his rather complicated beliefs.
Greene first came to Latin America to study the religious situation in Mexico. His principal concern was the suffering of Catholics under the socialist policies of the Mexican government. But he also discovered something unexpected: a powerful religious passion among the Indians of Mexico. Throughout his account of the journey (The Lawless Roads), he registered his admiration for their religiosity. Observing peasants kneeling for Mass, holding out their arms, minute after minute, in the attitude of crucifixion, he concluded: "Perhaps this is the population of heaven."4
In the intense piety of the Indians Greene saw "flashes . . . of something simple and strange and uncomplicated, a way of life we have hopelessly lost but can never quite forget" (Lawless, p. 170). To Greene, Indian religiosity was closer to some elemental form of Christianity than was the European version of the faith, which was "too apt to minimize the magic element in Christianity" (Lawless, p. 171). In contrast to the materialism so prevalent elsewhere, Greene found that "life among the dark groves of leaning crosses was at any rate concerned with eternal values" (Lawless, p. 207). Watching Indians in "a slow sad procession towards the foot of the cross," he concluded that "like saints they seek the only happiness in their lives and squeeze out from it a further pain" (Lawless, p. 44). To Greene, Indian Christianity was tenacious and full of grace, while "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" (Lawless, p. 224).