The Right Turning: Travel and Graham Greene

The essay below was commissioned by Outlook Traveller. They asked me for a piece on Graham Greene that reviewed 3-4 of his books, yet kept as focus the theme of travel in Greene’s work. However, since they haven’t published it in over two years, I’m assuming they changed their mind. As always, comments and thoughts are welcomed.

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The Right Turning

A year before he passed, my father decided to re-read every Graham Greene book he owned. Recalling that decision several months later, with curiosity stirred, I picked up The Power and the Glory, the best of Greene’s oeuvre, according to Dad and many of Greene’s other fans.

And I was transported into a world that I now recognize as quintessentially Graham Greene; a world where travel is central though often rather strange, where Catholicism is doubtingly heeded, where what you do matters more than who you are. And a world with some of the most haunting tales I’ve ever read.

Still, having read less than a third of Greene’s considerable output, I find myself gingerly embarking on this essay about an indisputable literary giant, albeit one whose motifs of violence and religion have made him, according to the Nobel Committee itself, too controversial to be awarded literature’s highest prize. But, as a pioneer of travel fiction, what does the master teach us about travelling?

A primary though perhaps obvious lesson is that travel can take several forms. The Power and the Glory is travel as adventure – the priest’s flight takes him through jungles, hills, rivers, plantations, and villages. Monsignor Quixote pays homage not just to Cervantes but also to that classic form of travel as recreation: the road trip. Travel can be an inner journey, such as the one Maurice takes in The End of the Affair to understand and accept Sarah’s departure and death. And in A Burnt-Out Case, when Querry journeys far away seeking solitude, he discovers the pitfalls awaiting one who undertakes travel as pilgrimage.

Another lesson is that there are universal aspects of humanity which surround and even perhaps engulf you no matter where you travel – be it the Mexican villages of The Power and the Glory, the Spanish countryside of Monsignor Quixote, the London suburbs of The End of the Affair or the Congolese jungles of A Burnt-Out Case. For Greene, one of these universal aspects was death; protagonists of all four books died either violently or prematurely. Another was religion. Greene’s own angst about Catholicism took shape in each of these books by juxtaposing the questioning believer against an atheistic doppelganger who inadvertently provides the believer with a mirror through which to examine and, eventually, retain their faith.

But if the same themes are everywhere, as Greene seems to say, then why travel at all? If the world now looks the same on the outside, with the increasing homogeneity of the ‘global village’, as well as on the inside, why not simply sit back in our comfortable armchairs and experience the world through the pages of this magazine?

Because, and this to me is Greene’s most profound statement on travel, your choices when you travel can irrevocably alter your life. The persecuted ‘whiskey priest’ of The Power and the Glory repeatedly turns back from the threshold of safety to help others in need, even, finally, at the cost of his own life. The amiable Monsignor Quixote chooses vitality by road-tripping with his Communist compañero even though it means his expulsion from the Church. Sarah beginsThe End of the Affair when she promises to leave Maurice if God ensures that he survives the bomb blast, a choice that destroys them both. And in A Burnt-Out Case, Querry attempts to snuffle his vocation and his fame in the anonymity of a remote leper colony, only to discover that he is too famous and too good at his job to escape either.

Old Robert Frost was spot on when he observed that it is the choice between two roads that makes all the difference. Greene expresses that sentiment through Dr. Colin in A Burnt-Out Case, who says, “Through trial and error, the amoeba did become the ape. There were bright starts and wrong turnings even then…I think of Christ as an amoeba who took the right turning.”

Like Christ, Greene’s characters often took turnings that destroyed them. Yet the process of turning, and the road they chose, also made them better than they ever thought they could be.

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