Three men meet on a ship bound for Haiti, a world in the grip of the corrupt 'Papa Doc' and the Tontons Macoute, his sinister secret police. Brown the hotelier, Smith the innocent American and Jones the confidence man - these are the 'comedians' of Graham Greene's title. Hiding behind their actors' masks, they hesitate on the edge of life. And, to begin with, they are men afraid of love, afraid of pain, afraid of fear itself...
"Poor Haiti itself and the character of Doctor Duvalier's rule are not invented, the latter not even blackened for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night"
This is a dark dark noir thriller. The merciless totalitarian rule of Papa Doc provides an all embracing claustrophobia that Greene's characters strive to come to terms with and ultimately to free themselves from. Everybody gets trapped in the malignancy. Nobody is who they seem and the paranoia is palpable as all motives are suspected.
The novel is written in the first person. Mr Brown is drawn back to Haiti maybe for love maybe to salvage a hotel he owns. He is world weary but has to take action as he is immediately immersed into the corruption of the capital Port au Prince as soon as his ship docks. It is night time and a government minister is seeking refuge in his hotel. He commits suicide rather than be taken alive by the Tonton Macoute and Brown must extricate himself from the repercussions that are bound to follow. Like this first incident much of the action takes place at night. There are curfews and power cuts everybody is running scared. Brown tries to sort out his life and is goaded into further action as more and more people around him are murdered or hiding in fear of their lives.
Greene populates this book with unforgettable characters.The American Mr Smith a one time presidential candidate. Mr Jones a teller of tall stories with a murky past. Martha the ambassadors wife torn between duty and love and the communist Doctor Magiots a fearless supporter of an alternative regime.
There is voodoo, a naive guerrilla movement and despicable diplomacy all part of the melting pot used by the zombie like Papa Doc to maintain his iron grip on the country. Greene's book is a searing indictment of that corrupt regime and can be read with reference to many other regimes that hold power by fear of the gun or worse. Greene makes a concerted plea towards the end of this novel that we should not be indifferent to peoples suffering under these conditions. Greene has a priest delivering a sermon when nothing has changed apart from the need to remember the dead. He says:
"The church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly. Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never."
It's also, sadly, slightly substandard Greene as far as structure. It's very flabby- there are, in effect, three storylines, which only interact insofar as the characters involved happen to know each other. There's no need at all for the naive American storyline (will Mr & Mrs Smith be able to set up a vegetarian center in Haiti?), which takes up a good fifth of the book; there's very little need for the narrator's back-story (how *did* he come to own a hotel in Haiti?), and the weight given to them early on detracts from the main event, Mr Jones' development from jail-bird to 'hero.' On the upside, it's nice to see the naive American's naivety as a source of strength and not just weakness, and the Englishman's cynicism may well be defeated by Dr. Magiot, who flits through the book only to have the final say. Without the Smith-vegetarian and Brown-family & lurv plot lines, this would have been excellent. As is, it's too flabby to recommend over Greene's masterpieces.
On the verge of entering a land where only nightmares are real and even more real than the people themselves, these men: a hotelier Brown, a confidence man Jones, and a seemingly eerie but innocent ex-Presidential Election candidate Smith, all imperceptibly hide behind their facades, act punctiliously, and hesitate on the edge of life. Brown is an Englishman who returns to the Haitian capital from New York looking for potential buyer of his hotel. Smith, a man who is fearless of political gestures and chicanery, devotes to a lifelong mission to lobby the government in establishing a vegetarian center. Jones, the most obscure and shady of the three, gives the impression that he is engaged on some secret project with the government. Indeed, he tries to sabotage a supply of arms to the Tontons Macoute in order to slowly rid Doc Papa of power and dissemble the tight-knitted network of secret police.
These are all comedians - living behind the mask and feigning. For a man of such ambiguity as he, whom everyone trusts so little, Jones really has a knack of winning friendship. Equally as shady but all the more embracing is Brown who harbors a secret affair with the wife of a South American ambassador. She is, however, markedly the opposite of him: she is not a comedian but is someone who is endowed with a decided directness and a virtue of straightforwardness. Not until the end of the affair does Brown dawn on the fact that she is no comedian. Brown's cowardice is always alluded to be the impediment to his being rooted deep enough to make him a home and to make him secure with love.
So much as the characters call for being comedians, Haiti and the character of Doc Papa and his rule are as real as the nightmares and horror. The Tontons Macoute was full of men more evil than Concassuer and other militant characters potrayed. The interrupted funeral and the stealing of dissidents' bodies were drawn from fact. THE COMEDIANS, though as light as its title might have alluded, is a major serious novel of Haiti and the residual aspects after the spell of torture.
Upon his return to the hotel Brown makes a surprising discovery, which he manages to hide from the Smiths, who accept his offer to be his guests. The four become entrenched in the violence and their lives are clearly in danger, yet they are largely oblivious to the threat in the beginning. Brown and Jones independently and repeatedly encounter the Tontons Macoute and one of its captains, along with a corrupt government minister and a trusted local physician. Jones gets into deep trouble, and somehow manages to enlist Brown's help in a risky plan that seems destined to result in failure and their deaths.
The Comedians was mildly entertaining, but it was ultimately a disappointing read given my high expectations for it. The Haitian people, government and paramilitary officers were largely portrayed as exotic buffoons, with little to distinguish them from people from other countries in Africa or the Caribbean, and the sense of imminent danger that the characters were often faced with did not ring anywhere near as true as it did in [The Feast of the Goat], Mario Vargas Llosa's much better novel set during the last days of Rafael Trujillo's regime in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Those interested in learning more about life in Haiti during the Duvalier regime would be much better off reading the works of writers such as Edwidge Danticat, Lyonel Trouillot and Dany Laferrière instead.
I pray for the book's irrelevance in our post-modern, post-colonial world, but I fear white souls will keep heading out to the "primitive", pre-Walmart depths to escape, to thieve, to live above the mass of struggling, dying local flesh.
Greene found his promised land in Haiti. His writing thrives on and creates evil. Read using a long stick to turn the pages if you want to stay pure but still enjoy Greene's prose.
Greene had been the victim of a phone-book libel scam for one of his previous novels, so he made a point of choosing the most common names he could think of for this one, but the anonymity is not just superficial: neither Brown nor Jones has any real evidence of the existence of his British father, and their mothers are both adventurers without any known background.
Confronted by the brutal lawlessness of Haiti (personified by the evil Captain Concasseur) the Smiths get into a macabre political confrontation in which the body of a former minister is seized by the Tontons Macoute during his funeral, whilst Brown, despite his cynicism, finds himself having to assist members of an anti-Duvalier partisan group and having to rescue Jones when his attempt to con the government out of a few millions goes wrong. And Jones, as we have already heard in the opening chapter, achieves a noble death despite himself.
It struck me, re-reading this after reading a string of books by Caribbean writers, how different and more restricted Greene's external view is. He exposes the fear, poverty and brutality, of course, but he doesn't put it into any specifically Haitian historical context: he seems to regard it as the sort of thing that happens naturally if you let people mismanage their own affairs. His only real political point is that the US has to take its share of the blame for not intervening to limit Duvalier's excesses. It could almost be Kipling and the "white man's burden". And a lot of the book is dedicated to establishing the course of Brown's sexual relationship with a married woman that doesn't really seem to do anything except confirm his moral emptiness and bring in a bit of sex-interest. There are nuances, of course: black Haitians appear not just as caricature villains but also as sympathetic minor characters (a communist doctor, a barman crippled by the Tontons Macoute, ...). But ultimately, this is a book about dodgy expat Brits against an exotic background. Greene was certainly a great writer, but I don't think the book really lived up to my memories of reading it forty years ago.
Haiti is a difficult world to explain to ordinary folk. It is difficult, first of all, to explain that the Haitian people can be so wonderful yet be oppressed by such terrible dictators time and again. Is it the fault of America, as Greene suggests? It certainly is true that America saw so many communist bogey men in the bushes it failed to recognize to TonTon Macoutes as being more detrimental to the health and well-being of the "tired and poor, yearning to be free" than any Castro. And WAS Papa Doc that bad? No, he was worse even than that.
Are there men and women alive today that see to the heart of goodness, as the Smiths did? It certainly is difficult to juxtapose the two: Smith and Duvalier. The absolute is difficult to swallow, yet there do exist absolutely good people. As there also exists absolutely evil ones. This book is peopled with both of them, yet one cannot/should not forget that it is also peopled with the rank and file, the company troupe, as it were, of actors, who learn their lines and continue to repeat them, never learning from a new script. The comedians.
I FOUND THE ROMANCE SO TIRING. I DON'T KNOW WHY IT WAS THERE.
I ENJOYED THE CHARACTERS EXCEPT THE "hero". It was an extremely sad story of Haiti which has never been given a chance.
The expat-milieu is dotted with peculiar characters, although Greene has clearly chosen or created quite larger-than-life characters in Major Jones, Mr Brown and the Smiths. The story of these characters is not so complicated, although the telling of the story in this particular novel is not so clear.
Anyone who has lived as an expat, will recognize the fluke-like quality of characters such as those described in the novel. The acronym F.I.L.T.H, meaning "Failed in London, try Hongkong" is supposedly well-known. However, The comedians would not be half as hilarious if the story developed against the back-drop of Hong Kong.
In the introduction to this edition, by Paul Theroux, Graham Greene is described as having a knack for seeking out "troubled" countries. It would be typical for a Greene novel to develop on the postulate that a shady place would attract shady characters.
The comedians is a somewhat laborious read.