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The Comedians by Graham Greene

The Comedians (1966)

by Graham Greene

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Summary: Three men, Brown, Smith, and Jones meet on a ship bound for Haiti during the reign of terror of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. They are the "comedians" who must confront not only the tragedy of Haiti, but themselves.

One of the darkest periods of Haiti's troubled history was the rule of "Papa Doc" Duvalier from 1957 until 1971. It was a reign of terror enforced by a secret police, the Tontons Macoute who killed between 30 and 60,000 while many others fled the country.

This is the Haiti to which the three main characters in the book are traveling aboard the Medea. Brown is a hotelier, who inherited the Hotel Trianon from his mother, and is returning, having been unable to sell the property, and drawn by a love affair with the wife of an ambassador. Smith is a former presidential candidate, of the Vegetarian Party, which got 10,000 votes in its election race. He hopes to establish a center for vegetarianism on the island. Jones is a confidence man, who consistently stays just one step of the law, on his tails even aboard ship. He styles himself a major, boasts of battle experience in Burma, Japan, and the Congo, and hopes to secure the rights to establish a golf club for Duvalier and his cronies.

Each faces the shattering of their "comedic" dreams in the face of the brutal realities of Papa Doc and the sinister Tonton Macoute epitomized by Captain Concasseur. From the moment Smith arrives, he must deal with the fleeing minister, Philipot, who commits suicide by his pool, and the later absurdity of his casket being carted away in the back of one of the Tontons vehicles, half sticking out the trunk. This was the same Philipot that Smith and his wife hoped to meet to pursue their vegetarian dream, only to discover that any dream of this sort must be accompanied by bribes and graft. Subsequently, Smith, in his rectitude stands up to the powers and takes his money across the border to the Dominican Republic, shedding his naive ideas about Haiti, but not his principles.

Jones is perhaps the most interesting, going from being held in prison as the law catches up with him at last, to becoming a crony, only to be found out as even shadier than the crooks in the regime. He hides out in the embassy where Brown's lover, Martha lives and Smith, in his jealousy, traps Jones in his own lies and lures him to lead a band in a quixotic revolt against Duvalier. In doing so, Smith comes face to face with both his longing for and inability to believe in enduring love.

Like other Graham Green works, Brown in particular struggles between faith and doubt, between the Catholicism in which he was raised, and a world seemingly desolate of goodness, of purpose, and of love. It was interesting to me that Dr. Magiot, a Marxist, is the one true believer (other than Smith with his vegetarian-utopian dreams), whose life, and sacrifice is motivated by the long view of the fulfillment of a Communist vision of the future. Greene helps us understand the appeal of Communism for principled people faced with corrupt regimes and a subservient church. More than this, Greene uses the backdrop of the absurd comedic horror of Duvalier's Haiti to strip the central characters of their comedic illusions and face them with who they were and what ultimately mattered to them. ( )
1 vote BobonBooks | Jan 2, 2017 |
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.
( )
1 vote kerns222 | Aug 24, 2016 |
" ‘Any news of the Baron?’ It was the name some gave to the President as an alternative to Papa Doc – we dignified his shambling shabby figure with the title of Baron Samedi, who in the Voodoo mythology haunts the cemeteries in his top-hat and tails, smoking his big cigar. ‘They say he hasn’t been seen for three months. He doesn’t even come to a window of the palace to watch the band. He might be dead for all anyone knows. If he can die without a silver bullet."

So far, The Comedians is my favourite Greene novel and probably the one proving most difficult to review.

The story of Smith, Jones, and Brown - which incidentally starts like a joke - strikes a perfect balance between comedy created by what seems to be light-hearted ignorance and the tragedy that arises out of the other, darker side of the story which is revealed only through one of the three, the main character, Brown.

Knowing a little about the historical background to the story's setting - Haiti during the rule of Papa Doc Duvalier - helps, but even without such this information, Greene strikes a perfect balance between the desperate and the comical. The references to voodoo and the haunting figure of Papa Doc just emphasize that bleak irony that shines throughout the story.

"Now that I approached the end of life it was only my sense of humour that enabled me sometimes to believe in Him. Life was a comedy, not the tragedy for which I had been prepared, and it seemed to me that we were all, on this boat with a Greek name (why should a Dutch line name its boats in Greek?), driven by an authoritative practical joker towards the extreme point of comedy. How often, in the crowd on Shaftesbury Avenue or Broadway, after the theatres closed, have I heard the phrase – ‘I laughed till the tears came.’ "

Review first posted on BookLikes: http://brokentune.booklikes.com/post/859261/the-comedians ( )
1 vote BrokenTune | Aug 21, 2016 |
Based on the introduction, it sounded as if I shouldn't bother reading the book. I'm glad I tried it out.

Some quotes:
'Most things disappoint until you look deeper.' [p. 12] (said by Mr. Smith, who wants to set up a vegetarian center in Haiti to reduce people's acidity and hence their passions, although not love).
  raizel | May 26, 2016 |
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. ( )
1 vote thorold | Feb 17, 2016 |
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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.

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.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, John Bowden (Jul 12, 1966)

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"...aspects are within us, and who seems
Most kingly is the King."
--Thomas Hardy
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When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones's home lay.
'Only the nightmares are real in this place.'
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143039199, Paperback)

One of Graham Greene's most chilling and prophetic novels, The Comedians is set in a Haiti ruled by Papa Doc and the Tontons Macoute, his sinister secret police. Just as The Quiet American offered a preview of the coming horrors of American involvement in Vietnam, this novel presages the chaos in Haiti. Classic Graham Greene.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:57:46 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Three men, Brown, Smith, and Jones, meet on a ship bound for Haiti, where "Papa Doc" and the Tontons Macoute rule, with sinister secret police."

» see all 4 descriptions

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