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.