The Comedians – Graham Greene

I am not too this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones’s home lay. At least he paid for the monument – however unwillingly – with his life, while the generals as a rule came home safe and paid, if at all, with the blood of their men, and as for the politicians – who cares for dead politicians sufficiently to remember with what issues they were identified?

In his introduction Paul Theroux points out that it is the farce of a regime such as the one in Haiti at the time, that appeals to Greene. It is there in the Comedians, but for me Greene depicted a terrible farce, with the focus subtly on the terror more than the farce. But it is the backdrop to this ruined country that Greene’s characters stand out in bold. They are a small band, Brown, Jones and the Smiths (I have to include Mr and  Mrs, although I can’t decide who I like more). Their meeting on the boat to Haiti sets the tone, a returning hotelier hoping he can resurrect his dying business after failing to sell it, The worldly innocent, dogmatic and idealist Smiths, determined to bring vegetarianism to Haiti and it’s people and Jones, a man of the world, possibly.

Greene makes clear Brown is not Greene, but that Haiti is real, so real that Papa Doc himself reviewed the book and attacked Greene, which makes me wonder if that was not purely the point of the novel, especially given Greene’s pride in the personal attack. I think Brown was Greene though, to a certain extent, although I could see no good in him. He is trapped in his affair, something you could perhaps attribute to Greene at the time, perhaps as the only thing that anchors him. The hotel bequeathed him by chance and doomed to failure. He is dismissive of Jones out of fear and jealousy, and he ultimately pushes Jones out because of this, ironically into the house of the object of his obsession, which in turn sparks even more jealousy, causing him to act in a cowardly and selfish way.

Mr and Mrs Smith, the kind of people you would enjoy easy, genial company and conversation with but would then mock and sneer at as they trundle off for their Yeastrel, are a poke of fun at the Americans by Greene, never the countries biggest fan. They shine through though, their dogged persistence, naive bravery against the Tontons Macoute and Haiti’s corrupt system, until even they are worn down by it.

‘Campaigned?’ Jones asked sharply as though the word had woken the major within him.
‘In the Presidential Election of 1948.’

‘You were a candidate?’
‘I’m afraid,’ Mr Smith said with a gentle smile, ‘that I stood very little chance. The two great parties…’
‘It was a gesture,’ his wife interrupted fiercely. ‘We showed our flag.’
Jones was silent. Perhaps he was impressed, or perhaps like myself he was trying to recall who the main contestants had been.

Jones. Jones depends on you. If you like a good storyteller, and don’t mind that you are been utterly lied to, then you will like him, if you demand honesty and integrity in everyone you meet, Jones is not the man for you. I loved him, and even Browns dislike of the man, sometimes plain, sometimes grudging, could not dissuade me from liking him. In a way, at the end he does become, or in fact already was, what he always portrayed.

While the books greatest strength is it’s quartet of main characters, it is Brown, and the narration from him that ultimately left me struggling to enjoy this. It is something to say that I hated Brown, and that in it’s own way is a compliment of the strength of Greene’s ability to create vividly real characters, but when they are in the driving seat, they taint everything else in you see, like colour lenses on a pair of binoculars. While he recalls the story it is his own cowardice and petty jealousies that rise to the fore, and these drown out everything else, except perhaps what it felt like to be in Haiti at the time, which judging by the rebuttal from it’s then dictator, must have been reasonably accurate.

If a spirit hovers, as some believe, for an hour or  two over the cadaver it has abandoned, what banalities it is doomed to hear, while it waits in a despairing hope that some serious thought will be uttered, some expression which will lend dignity to the life it has left. I said to Mrs Smith, ‘Tonight would you mind having only eggs? Tomorrow I’ll have everything organized to suit you. Unfortunately the cook went off yesterday.’
‘Don’t bother about the eggs.’ Mr Smith said. ‘To tell you the truth we are a little dogmatic about eggs. But we’ve got our own Yeastrel.’

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