The Comedians

by Graham Greene

Paperback, 2005

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Penguin Books, 2005.

Description

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...

Media reviews

First published nearly 40 years ago, Greene's novel about a world-weary hotelier in the darkest days of the Duvalier dictatorship was inevitably banned in the country. It would be comforting to read it now as a historical record of a different era but sadly the night in Haiti has deepened further and if Greene were to return he would find no shortage of the corruption and violence that acted as a backdrop to The Comedians.
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Most of all, God is a failure. God is like the British army: He loses almost every battle, and only at the end, if repentance comes in time, may He win the war. For most of the time, Evil wins, turning good intentions to bad ends and bringing all to ruin. I think we should remember that the God who created Greeneland has been more than seven days in doing it, and has not yet rested. He is Mr. Greene himself. And if the land itself might be a miserable enough place in which to live, the God who creates it does so with so much liveliness and skill, and with such a will and ability to please and carry us along, that for those of us who are merely tourists and not the doomed inhabitants it is an exciting land to visit.

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
The only thing funny about this book is Greene's own preface, where he writes to a past publisher and jokes about suing himself for libel. Even this turns ominously to doom and darkness when Greene talks about Haiti. He says

"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."
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LibraryThing member stillatim
For Greene, this was epically long- nearly 300 pages? The heck? Unwonted length aside, though, it's standard Greene: foreign country, political machinations, darkness, weirdly sex-obsessed leading man and his illicit, tortured relationship with a married woman, naive Americans, cynical Englishmen and so forth.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattviews
THE COMEDIANS, with its simple plot and small cast of characters, is a vision to a country under absolute dictatorship that is perpetually serious and intense. It closely shadows there men who encounter one another on a ship bound for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a world that evokes the surveillance-infested society in Orwell's 1984. Haiti, at least under Greene's pen, is a world in the grip of corrupt Papa Doc and his omnipresent retinue of secret police, the Tontons Macoute.

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.
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LibraryThing member kidzdoc
This suspenseful comedic novel begins on a cargo ship en route from Philadelphia to Port-au-Prince in the early 1960s, during the early years of the murderous reign of the Haitian dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier: Brown, who runs a luxury hotel for foreigners that he inherited from his mother; Smith, a minor candidate for the US Presidency in 1948 who ran on an anti-war, pro-vegetarian platform, who is accompanied by his equally naïve and bombastic wife; and Jones, another Briton, who claims that he is a distinguished army major but seems to be full of hot air and completely untrustworthy. All are aware of the terror that Duvalier has inflicted on his opponents and innocent civilians with the help of the Tontons Macoute, his sadistic paramilitary force, yet each of them are unconcerned for their own safety as white foreigners. Brown is drawn back to his hotel and, more importantly, to the woman he desires, if not loves; Smith and his wife seek an audience with a government minister to discuss the creation of a vegetarian center in the capital; and Jones plans a secretive deal that promises to provide him with enough money to create a Caribbean golf resort.

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.
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LibraryThing member kerns222
Three white men (and a wife) (and a mistress) in Greene's special, black Haitian hell. Written like a colonial party going upriver.

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.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This 1966 novel is the 11th book by Greene I have read. It seems to be intended more as a vehicle to show Greene's of Duvalier than anything else. There can be no doubt of t he badness of the events in Haiti while Duvalier was there. The novel's narrator is Brown, a fallen-away Catholic who owns a hotel in Haiti which he inherited from his mother, who had as her lover adoctor who apparently was a Communist. Greene shows that being a Duvalier supporter is a greater evil than being a Communist. The book is supposed to have suspense in it, but I did not find myself caught up by suspense. But Greene is indeed a facile storyteller.… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
The Comedians is Greene's 1966 novel set in Haiti under François ("Papa Doc") Duvalier. A small group of classic Greene characters meet on a ship from the US to Haiti: Brown (the narrator) and Jones quickly recognise each other as cynical chancers who survive by trading on their dubious claim to belong to the English "officer class": Brown owns a tourist hotel in Port-au-Prince, where the tourist-trade has died thanks to the political conditions (it was based on the famous Hotel Oloffson, where Greene stayed), whilst Jones hints at military connections. Mr and Mrs Smith are naive American Liberals - veterans of the Civil Rights movement who see Haiti as the ideal place to promote vegetarianism and pacifism among the noble citizens of the free black republic (Brown rather cruelly points out to them that most of the population of Haiti is too poor to eat meat).

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.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
To increase your enjoyment and appreciation of this book, read [Seeds of Fiction] by [Bernard Diederich] first.

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.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
It gets good press, but I found Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter" to be a particularly tedious piece of slow-moving Catholic angst-bait. I was surprised, then, that I liked "The Comedians" as much as I did. I was further surprised to find that it is, in both tone and content, closer to Albert Camus than John Paul II. Graham gives his novel a clever set-up: three strangers named Smith, Jones, and Brown meet aboard a ship to Haiti. From there, he seems to argue that a kind of rootless existential despair is part and parcel of both life under brutal dictatorship – in this case that of Papa Doc Duvalier – and the expatriate experience. From there, we watch as Brown, a former Catholic schoolboy, a failed hotelier, and the novel's main character, makes his way, slowly and haltingly, toward decency. Not that he ever becomes particularly likable, mind you; he lacks most of Mersault's charisma and I fear that particularly judgmental readers may not be able to tolerate him at all. Such readers are also unlikely to be charmed by Smith, who is a pitch-perfect, if somewhat cruel, depiction of a hopelessly optimistic American unable to square his own beliefs with Haiti's political realities, and Jones, a feckless, pitiful personification of the fading British empire. Still, Greene shows wonderful insight into his characters' situations and manages to evoke real sadness from their stories. His prose, which I sense owes a debt to the thriller genre, is crisp and efficient, though I also feel that the novel's denouement lasts perhaps a bit too long. It's worth reading to the end, though. In the novel's last few pages, some of Greene's characters manage to find something worth fighting for amidst all the gloom. Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member grheault
Sixties Haiti set on a boat, then in a hotel in Haiti. Dark, violent, and for its portrayal of the times, banned in Haiti. A white european-ish window on Haiti.
LibraryThing member charlie68
I heard this of this book in connection with the recent earthquake that happened a month ago. A good read for those people who maybe have a fuzzy notion of Haitian history and culture.
LibraryThing member tzelman
Chilling story of personal commitment set in Papa Doc's Haiti; comedians vs. the committed
LibraryThing member markfinl
I have read many Graham Greene novels and he is one of my favorite authors, but this book did not do much for me. The story is thin and predictable and although the story is set in Haiti, there is actually very little that goes on that seems unique to the island.
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
The Comedians starts out at sea. A small handful of passengers are traveling to Haiti; notably Mr. Brown, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. Because of their common names there is an air of mystery to their characters. Their first names are never revealed. As Mr. Brown (telling the story) points out, they could be anyone. Although, as the reader will discover, they are not. they are comedians, pretenders. Mr. Smith is a United States Presidential candidate on the "Vegetarian platform" of 1948. He arrives in Port-au-Prince with his wife looking to start a vegetarian center. Mr. Jones is a shady character with a dubious past. He appears to be on the run from British authorities and full of tall tales. Nothing he says is believable. Mr. Brown, as narrator, is a man without a country. He owns a failing hotel and is having an affair with a South American Ambassador's wife. His existence is on the fringe of life. All three men are ruined souls, barely playing out their parts. The backdrop for The Comedians is the real-life tyrannical Papa Doc and the shadowy Tonton Macoute. Jones, Brown and Smith are vehicles to introduce the reader to the poverty, the voodoo, the political unrest, and the eventual yet unsuccessful uprising of the rebellion army.… (more)
LibraryThing member SaraPrindiville
Feels a lot like Hemingway, but I really can't compare him to anyone I've read yet. Compelling sense of place. Gives a feeling of being jaded. Having "lived" and there is no returning to that. Hope for better times but knowledge that things will not be the same as before bad things happened.
LibraryThing member nmele
Rereading a number of Greene novels has made me more aware of some of the constants in his work: cruelty both political and personal, the complexity of innocence, the tangle of emotions and relationships Greene always associates with love. Maybe not his best novel but well worth reading.
LibraryThing member ammurphy
some things don't change: deforestation, sporadic electricity. captures the atmosphere.
LibraryThing member raizel
Based on the introduction, it sounded as if I shouldn't bother reading the book. I'm glad I tried it out.
LibraryThing member encephalical
Paradoxically unappealing yet sympathetic characters, in other words, real people. Greene's usual fantastic prose. Overall just missing that something to make it a great novel.
LibraryThing member mahallett
I WANTED TO ENJOY THIS BOOK.
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.
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Couleure locale or ambience in literature is often used by authors to create a pleasant back-drop to the story. The novels of Graham Greene are often characterised as foregrounding character, while the background is considered less important. However, The comedians uses the back-drop of the Haiti at the time of 'Papa Doc' Duvalier as a grim background that adds significantly to the grimness of the story.

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.
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LibraryThing member William345
This is without exception my favorite Graham Green novel. Love and murder in 1960's Haiti among the evil Papa Doc Duvalier's Tonton Macute. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
LibraryThing member TTAISI-Editor
I found this book engrossing and disturbing. It's pacing is slower than some of Greene's other works, but at the same time it's more affecting because some of the characters are quite real.
LibraryThing member BooksForDinner
Another solid Greene outing. Of his South America novels, I probably liked "Our Man in Havana" better, though that was more of a 'comedy' than this despite the title. As usual, great characters, and a great job of placing us in fear of Papa Doc without ever meeting him.
LibraryThing member mirlyarley
Very dense writing;; depressing story told as some Americans pass through the hell of Papa Doc's Haiti while a few actually try to change (help) the country.

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