73 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on June 12, 2002
Graham Greene's forte lay in writing novels (and "entertainments") of political intrigue. I do not know if this master British novelist visited any or all of the countries about which he wrote. Mr. Greene seemed to have considerable knowledge of both the current and near recent political and societal conditions of the countries that formed the backdrop of his books. For example, in _The Comedians_ Mr. Greene shows an unusual grasp of the extreme poverty and deprivation suffered by Haitian people living under Papa Doc Duvalier's corrupt, dictatorial, and totalitarian regime as well as the extreme human rights violations and abuses of Papa Doc's sadistic secret police, the Tontons Macoute. Several characters in the book note with some irony vis-a-vis American foreign policy, that as bad as Papa Doc seems, he is at least a strong anti-Communist.
Graham Greene does something very unusual with his major caucasian characters: he gives them very common, non-descript surnames. The reader never learns their first names. The narrator of the novel, an Englishman, is merely called "Mr. Brown." He runs a financially deteriorating hotel in Haiti that he inherits from his mother. Like the author, Mr. Brown is a fallen-away Catholic. A British soldier of fortune and con artist who comes to Haiti is simply called Major Jones or just "Mr. Jones." His talents consist mainly in charming women and in telling funny jokes. An American couple, named Mr. and Mrs. Smith, come to Haiti hopefully to set up a vegetarian center. Mr. Smith ran in the 1948 U.S. presidential election on the Vegetarian Line. He is derisively referred to as "the Presidential Candidate" throughout the novel and utilizes this sobriquet as a method of influencing the Duvalier government to approve of his scheme. Graham Greene refers to all of these individuals as "comedians" because they symbolically wear actors' masks to hide their true natures and to invent persona to deceive people. Alternately, Marcel, Mr. Brown's late mother's black lover who avers that he would have died for her "...was no comedian after all. Death is a proof of sincerity."
Greene chooses to present these "comedians" as realistic, flawed human beings. They live on the fringes of life, never participating in the human adventure. But even comedians often have untapped hidden strengths that may be revealed in a crisis. Jones, the Smiths, and Brown eventually prove to be more heroic than they appear on the surface.
_The Comedians_ is one of the very best and one of the most heroic novels in Graham Greene's repertoire, and is most highly recommended.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
To call a novel about the most horribly repressive and violent period in Hatian history The Comedians is typical Graham Greene irony. The main characters, Jones (a Brit expatriate on the run from a never disclosed shady past), Smith (a vegetarian crusader who was once a splinter candidate for U.S. president), and Brown (a man of no real country who has inherited a run down hotel in Haiti from his absent mother) are all rootless failures playing at life who are brought together in Haiti during a time of terror and political chaos when the country was descending into a kind of primitive madness. Against their will and in ways they don't anticipate, they are each sucked into the vortex. How they respond highlights the questions that Greene is forever posing about faith, redemption, commitment and responsibility.
The dreams of each character, flimsy as they are, are doomed to fail in a land where utilities and civil order have broken down, where beggers predominate and order is maintained by the Tontons Macoute, the zombie figures in dark glasses who dispense Papa Doc's brutal 'justice' and leave the evidence of it lying beside the road. Smith, who with his wife, wants to start a vegetarian center in the Haitian capitol, flees the country when he realizes that he must resort to bribes for the simplest permissions and even then the promises are a sham. Jones, who tries to con the Hatian government into buying arms that he doesn't possess, is uncovered as a fraud and flees to a South American embassy for protection (the British don't want him - or want him too much). Brown, who wants only to be left alone to run his hotel and pursue a pointless affair, nevertheless finds himself acting time and again to help one or another of the other characters (including a number of Haitians), all the while trying to remain emotionally neutral and uninvolved. He fails, and his failure brings on the book's one clear success, a good end for Jones who escapes the embassy, with Brown's assistance, to join and train a small band of Haitian guerrillas in the hills. At the end, having found 'a good place', he dies a comic but heroic death. He did not, it seems, actually know anything about warfare, having served in the army only in the entertainment division. His lies finally catching up. But as one of the Haitian survivors says - he was good for the men - he made them laugh.
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2003
The novel opens on a cruise ship steaming toward Haiti. We meet a diverse group of characters who are revealed through the device of setting them in a game of cards on board ship.
Brown, the primary character and narrator is returning to Haiti to reclaim a hotel he inherited and through his eyes we see the political changes occurring in the country and are made aware of the ominous threat of the Tonton Macoute secret police that hangs over the entire story adding dramatic tension.
Jones , his fellow passenger is revealed to be a con-man who gets by on his ability to make others laugh (one of the comedians) . Smith a failed presidential candidate from the US is naively seeking to establish a vegetarian center in Haiti seemingly oblivious to the turmoil all around him.
Brown's romance with the wife of a diplomat provides a subplot that mirrors the theme that everyone is deceiving someone. The comedians all prove to be actors playing on a stage filled with political violence and the everpresent threat of more to come.
This was a very engaging novel and if not Greene's most well known book it may be one of his best. I enjoyed it and highly recommend it for it's memorable characters and stunning evocation of a country approaching chaos.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2005
Graham Greene did not feel this was his favorite work, and according to Paul Theroux, it's not his best. [Read Theroux's introduction, which should have been called the Afterword, AFTER reading the book.] Yet this novel captures a historic time and the fate of a "failed state" under the spell of a mad dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier, whose obsessions with Voodoo and power engender perpetual terror and ruin, enforced by his personal goon squad, the sunglass-clad Toutons Macoute. Greene brilliantly divides the world into "comedians" and those who actually do something. We meet a rich mix of both, beginning with Brown, Smith, and Jones, the comics, on a Dutch ship with a Greek name, the Medea, in Greek mythology an enchantress who repeatedly resorted to murder to gain her ends, like Papa Doc and others in this enchanting book. Greene weaves a tight narrative, for the most part, where dialog comes at you in staccato fashion, revealing the soft spots, lies, and bluffs of each speaker. Brown, Greene's persona, narrates the book and shows himself to be a brooding egotist dwelling on his lost father and falsely promising youth at the Jesuit College of the Visitation at Monte Carlo, where his mother had abandoned him. He's the jealous, possessive sort, a lapsed Catholic who has replaced his faith with unattainable romance. His lover, Martha, the wife of a South American diplomat, is always in his thoughts, even though he attempts to keep her out. He dwells on her every word. Greene gives their secret affair a real feel of desperation and passion, mixed with distrust and futility. We also meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith, naive American do gooders who absurdly want to open a vegetarian center in the midst of Haiti's nightmarish capital. Then there's Jones, a grifter who is the victim of his own comic farce. The "doers" are Dr. Magiot, a closet communist who sincerely tries to save lives in the name of humanity, and Philipot, who starts off as a poet and ends up in the mountains with a ragged band of rebels trying to overthrow the beast.
Greene also shows us in a sweeping gesture the disastrous policy of the US in Latin America, as President Johnson, in an attempt to keep communism out of the region, backed the lunatic Duvalier with troops, to the utter dismay of his victims. Greene was long onto America's mischief and meddling here and elsewhere, to the point where the FBI, for 40 years, had monitored his statements and his movements, according to Theroux. In this sense, this novel is relevant to today's naive global comic and tragic American policies of ridiculously attempting to "democratize" the world, while moving American corporations into these so-called liberated nations. Greene would have very much howled about Bush's "faith-based" missteps across the globe, and he would have found plenty of failed states and shady comic and tragic characters to write about.
Above all, here is a novel that "counts." Because it exists, Duvalier's Haiti is preserved in its hothouse cruelty and lurid details. Although Brown's brooding is sometimes self-centered and indulgent, you will still walk away from this novel richer for having read it. The misery it vividly portrays still stalks the earth, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2004
Graham Greene's "The Comedians" is not as well-known as "Our man in Havana" or "The quiet American", but it happened to be my first Greene novel. And I am very impressed, and happy to have started reading Greene. The Comedian is a mature, disconcerting, memorable novel.
The novel is set in Haiti, in the early years of the dictator Duvalier, known as Papa Doc (late 1950s or early 1960s). Papa Doc, come to power through elections but tightening his grip through terror, has unleashed his reign of violence, through his militia-like "Tontons Mocoute", named so after voodoo-myth bogeymen. A land that was poor and moderately corrupt but in many ways happy, is gradually sunk into its own unique brand of hell.
Greene treats us to his description of Haiti through the eyes of several White people, and the lead narrator Brown's black local friends. There is hopelessness and gloom hanging over every character, an apt reflection of the tragedy of Haiti herself.
The narrator is Mr. Brown, a former small-time con artist who happened to inherit a hotel in Port-au-Prince, and thinks of Haiti now as his home and future. We learn of his story as he tries to leave, fails psychologically, returns, is caught up in a destructive affair with the wife of a Latin American diplomat, and keeps getting involved in the violence and madness of Haiti, even though he tries to stay detached. The name of the novel comes from his fatalistic philosophy of life --- that we are all just actors in the perverse comedy of life. Brown's memories and actions form much of the book, and his portrait is excellently done.
In the end Brown has to flee Haiti, as his friends die and Papa Doc's power gets more secure with American support. Ahh, Washington support for murderous dictators. My country, too, has seen some of that, as has the majority of Third World nations. Bulwarks against dangerous socialist ideas, these dictators supposedly were, just like Papa Doc, and hence deserving of friendship.
The Smiths are progressive idealists from the American Midwest, saintly people quite out of touch with reality. The caricature is a bit overdone, but yes, people from the American Midwest can be like that :-) They come to Haiti with high hopes of establishing a "vegetarian" cultural center that would improve the quality of local life. Unable to deal with the corruption, they leave. In some ways their attempts and experiences are almost as tragic as the story of Haitians themselves.
Jones is a con-man who can make people laugh but cannot pull off his deceptions. In a perverse twist that makes him heroic, Jones dies fighting with the Haitian insurgents.
The Haitian characters are more impressive than the White ones, and this is a testament to the genius of Greenes's writing, his empathy for all humans shining through the subdued/ironic tone of his novels. Some of these characters are --
(1) Joseph, the bartender at Brown's hotel, who is crippled after being tortured by the Tontons Mocoute, who subscribes to the ignorant voodoo ideas of his people, who joins the uprising after being possessed by the voodoo warrior spirit. In the end he dies fighting.
(2) The doctor with socialistic leanings, enormously learned, first tolerated and finally killed by Papa Doc.
(3) Philippot the former minister who commits suicide in Brown's swimming pool, and his nephew, the poet who seeks solace and courage in his people's voodoo, and then leads a hopeless uprising.
(4) A Tonton Mocoute Captain, a character shown too closely, murderous and frightening.
Graham Greene doesn't try to shock with dramatized writing. The writing is simple and understated. Reality in the Third World just happens to be scarier and more shocking than any atmosphere conjured up by fancy writing.
A most impressive and memorable part of the book, for me, was the description of the voodoo ceremony. It's such a vivid, personal account, that I couldn't help feeling that the author must have witnessed something similar, first-hand.
The drums beat. The initiates have their arms burnt. The "ogoun" (ceremony-leader) rejects the sweet spirit of lovers, and calls for the spirit who watches over warriors. And he comes, taking possession over Joseph the cripple, who swings a machette running and pours alcohol down the throat of young Phillipot.
The story of voodoo is, of course, integral to any history of Haiti. Papa Doc used voodoo superstitions to consolidate his own power, but just as importantly, the resistance used voodoo ideas for inspiration. Later, Papa's son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was also a U.S.-backed dictator, but unlike his father showed clear preferences for mulatto & Catholic culture at the expense of black and Africanist culture. Voodoo at that point became more exclusively an inspiration for the people rather than the rulers.
An excellent novel, understated but emotionally exhausting, disturbing in its quiet description of brutal injustices.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2001
If only Graham Greene were still alive and turning out great works like "The Comedians"! Today's shrill jumbled postmodern prose is no match for the steady understated yet vastly effective pen of Graham Greene. "The Comedians" is Greene at his near best.
The protagonist, Brown, is a man without a country who has returned from a previous exile to a hotel inherted from his distant mother in Petionville, Haiti during the reign of the monomaniacal dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Aboard the moribund freighter to Port-Au-Prince are the Smiths (a couple of painfully earnest American vegetarian liberals who are blind to any possible problems that could exist in Haiti as a way to expiate their upper-class white guilt), and Jones, a shady British expat who tells unlikely anecdotes about his experiences in various wars and overseas diplomatic posts. As they land, their lives slowly become intertwined.
Brown's Haiti is a land in under the spell of a comedic terror. Papa Doc's militia, the Tontons Macoutes, with their sunglasses worn at night, and their rusty guns with no bullets, plunge the land into a nightmare of extortion, kidnapping, murder and chaos. Indeed, when Brown first returns to the hotel, he is confronted with the body of politician who chose to commit suicide in Brown's pool instead of being captured by the Tontons Macoutes.
Brown attempts to remain a neutral observer in the chaos going on around him, but is soon caught up in affairs when they encroach even further on his hotel. His pointless and emotionally destructive affair with the wife of a South American diplomat in Port-Au-Prince only confounds his malaise, and realizes that he, Papa Doc, the Smiths, Jones, the Tontons Macoutes, everyone - are playing the role of the comedians in the tragedy of life.
Whenever I tire of the embarassingly overpraised mush that passes for modern fiction, I always return to Graham Greene's deliberately understated (never smirking) irony and imagery. Instead of the tautologies and abused metaphors that pass for profundity in today's overly florid "serious" novels, Greene's economical, yet satisfying, imagery and wry prose are sorely missed. This isn't Greene's best work, but it's not far from it either.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2006
This great novel is set in Haiti, in the times of the first years of Papa Doc Duvalier's horrific, crazy and totalitarian regime. Brown is an Englishman who has inherited a hotel in Port-au-Prince from his extravagant and licentious mother. As things are getting bad in Haiti, Brown travels to New York to try to find a buyer, but obviously he fails. Meanwhile, Duvalier has tightened his grip on power, surrounded by the Satanic Tontons Macoutes, his political police, whose presence permeates all the novel with sinister undertones. Aboard the ship that's taking him back to Haiti, there come several intriguing characters. Two of them are an exhilarating couple of Americans, the Smiths, who are obviously travelling to a country of which they know nothing. Their object is to have a jolly good time in a Caribbean island and try to establish a vegetarian center. By the way, Mr. Smith had run against Truman in 1948, as the candidate of the Vegetarian Party (he got ten thousand votes), and so throughout the novel he's called "the Presidential candidate". His wife is a woman of enormous coourage, absurd and naive. The Smiths portray the paradigmatical naivete of Americans, but also the decency and cleannes of good people. There's also Jones, clearly a con man, who likes to be called "Commander Jones". He's a colorful guy who is very good at making people laugh and who tells endless stories about his prowess during the war, in Burma. When they reach Haiti, the Smiths take room in Brown's hotel. While they're on their way, a horrified Brown discovers by the pool the body of the Minister of Health, who has committed suicide and to whom the Smiths carried a letter of recommendation. In the following weeks, while Brown gets back with his lover, the wife of a South American ambassador, he also sees how his business collapses, due to the fact that there aren't tourists anymore. The political situation deteriorates and there are rumors of guerrillas in the mountains. For a time, Jones enjoys political favour, thanks to his prospects of doing good business with the government, but then they discover his deception and he is forced to take refuge in Brown's lover's house. Then Jones and Brown are thrown into the political chaos.
Greene's central subjects are here: the fallible individual fleeing from himself and from his past; moral failure and the search for redemption; loneliness, human misery; the stupidity of fanaticisms; the strength of faith and the blurring border betweeen good and evil. Like in "The Power and the Glory", the flight forward allows us to take a look at the bare human condition. It should be mentioned that the novel contains a good deal of sense of humor, of course an ironic one, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 2000
For those of us who have spent a lifetime reading the works of Graham Greene (which we can do because he spent an even longer lifetime producing brilliant work), of this we are certain: Graham Greene is the greatest writer in the English language maybe of the entire Twentieth Century. His body of work is staggering, and "The Comedians" is right up there with the best of them. Expertly weaving the dread and menace of Haiti under Papa Doc with the intimate, personal lives of a classic collection of displaced European and American characters, Greene does what he always does: he makes the personal political, and vice versa. "The Comedians" is sublime.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 23, 2005
THE COMEDIANS by Graham Greene is one of Greene's books that is a must-read for his fans and those who are interested in taking him up. The book begins on a ship bound for Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The main characters are all men, British, Monegasque and American, and their names are Jones, Brown and Smith, respectively. They are in this way nondescript, nearly interchangeable (not for long), and we never learn their first names. When they dock, Brown, the main character from whose viewpoint the first-person novel is told, heads for the hotel he owns, which has slid from its heyday when there were actual tourists in Haiti; Jones ends up in trouble with the authorities (Papa Doc and his secret police, the Tontons Macoute) and Smith and his wife come to stay at Brown's hotel. The Smiths are in Haiti to promote a vegetarian center -- Smith had run for president of the United States on the vegetarian ticket, and is known to all the characters as the "presidential candidate."
Before Brown heads home, he stops off at the rendezvous that he and his girlfriend, the wife of a South American ambassador, used to keep by the statue of Columbus. He finds her there, and she returns with him on a visit to his hotel. In the deserted building, Brown finds the body of a former government minister in the drained pool -- a suicide. The Smiths arrive just as Brown is trying to decide how to get rid of the body... in these crisis times in Haiti, it's best not to have anything to do with any risky government official, and he managees to hide it from them. It is ironic, as that is the minister to whom they have a letter of introduction to begin pitching their vegetarian center.
The book's plot continues on, involving the intrigues of the oppressive regime, the foreigners and their respective schemes, and their interrelationships during these days in Haiti, and their later attempts, failures and successes in leaving Haiti for the Dominican Republic. Jones is in and out of trouble. Brown tries to stay out of the way of the Tontons Macoute and in the way of his girlfriend, whose dedication to her child drives him to distraction, and Smith tries to maintain his optimism about the government of Haiti to salvage his dreams of his center (even in the face of atrocities). The plot in Greene's unique telling evokes the responses one has to any existentialist novel. There seems to be so little hope for happiness. There seems to be nothing certain except random and unfathomable cruelty.
The "comedians" term of the title refers to the division of characters into those who are committed to something and those who are not. Brown, a lapsed Catholic raised by Jesuits in Monaco, Jones and others are comedians. By the very site of his birth in a country from which no one is really from, his uncertain parentage (he doesn't know if there ever really was a man named Brown, per se, who slept with his mother), his former career as a semi-con-man, Brown is the very definition of a comedian. The one thing to which he is now committed, his hotel, is on the verge of being taken away from him by the government of Papa Doc. He resents the commitments of his girlfriend to her son and the Smiths to their ideologies and their vegetarian center. Later in the book, when his girlfriend becomes friends with Jones, Brown's statements echo the main character's in The End of the Affair. His jealousy threatens the one loving relationship he seems to have.
But there is another meaningful relationship for Brown, a near commitment, and it emerges with typical "Greenian" beauty and power. The book does show so well the absurdity of our political constructions and the use and misuse of power at the same time it demonstrates the sweet absurdity of belief. Greene seems to be saying that there is something very necessary and human in that kind of commitment, something to soften the edges of the hard world that cares nothing for us that we share .
This is a masterful novel. I recommend it without reservation!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 16, 2005
"Next day I saw the Smiths off at the airport. Mr. Smith asked me to stop the car in the centre of the square, and I thought he intended to take a photograph. Instead he got out, carrying his wife's handbag, and the beggars, approached from all directions--there was a low babble of half articulated phrases, and I saw a policeman run down the steps of the Post-Office. Mr. Smith opened the handbag and began to scatter notes--gourdes and dollars indiscriminately. `For God's sake,' I said. One or two of the beggars gave high unnerving screams: I saw Hamit standing amazed at the door of his shop. The red light of evening turned the pools and mud the colour of laterite. The last money was scattered, and the police began to close in on their prey. Men with two legs kicked down men with one, men with two arms grasped those who were armless by their torsos and threw them to the ground. ... I hustled Mr. Smith back into my car ... Mr. Smith said, `Well my dear, I guess they won't squander that any worse than I would have done.'"
Excellent book, and even better, richer, than nonfiction at showing why the idealistic schemes of naive Westerners, pious millionaire rock stars included, perpetually run aground and make matters worse in places like Haiti and Sub-Saharan Africa.