Graham Greene: The Comedians

First published: 1966

Book Review

You could describe this novel as a thriller. It's set in Haiti during the years of Papa Doc Duvalier's Regime, when Mr Brown, Smith, Jones and various other passengers, have travelled there from America by ship. Mr Jones has many stories about his army days. He talks cheerily enough about 'the Commandos.' But when asked precisely what he did during any particular Commando mission, his military recollections suddenly become vague. Onboard ship all this narrative amusement seems harmless enough, and while Brown notices his own, and his colleagues', reluctance to accord any military attributes or titles to Jones, none of them objects to being entertained by his stories over the dinner table.

Brown immediately takes Jones for a conman and is continuously attempting to trip him up with probing military questions which Jones dodges admirably. Somewhere during this phase of mock-courtship, however, Brown acknowledges that he and Jones are quite alike. I wasn't convinced of that. To me Brown was far clearer about his occupation. At least he said that he was an hotelier and he was one. By this stage it's still not clear what Jones really is and everybody knows it.

It might be supposed that Brown equates his extramarital affair with a diplomat's wife to the same kind of trickery that Jones is always upto. Brown even suggests an equivalence himself. And yet the similarity between these two men never satisfies me. In fact Brown goes further than that and equates the various deceptions of all of his acquaintances to one another. And in their desire to fool each other, and the wider world, Brown dubs them all, himself included, comedians. Hence the title of the book. There is a curious description of a meeting between Brown and his mistress' husband at a diplomatic cocktail party. Brown feels sure that the ambassador has seen his wife and him surreptitiously making love to each other whenever they happen to come in contact. But if the ambassador has noticed he makes no sign of it. It's perhaps this feeling of deceiving the ambassador that enables Brown to identify so closely with Jones. But if this is the real reason, then, in my view, even Brown himself misidentifies it. As we will see, the consequences of Jones' deceptions are very serious indeed, whereas the liaisons of Brown and his mistress are trifling by comparison.

Complications for Brown begin with his finding the dead body of an Haitian government minister in his swimming pool. A surreal passage follows when Brown attempts to convince his guests, the first ones at the Hotel Trianon for some considerable time, that the body in the pool really is of no consequence. Sweeping things under the carpet seems to be a skill of Brown's. I'm intrigued by the way in which he manages to make his chef's soufflé-making abilities seem more important than the ravages of the Duvalier regime. Brown even remarks that Haiti is cleaner under the Duvalier regime than previously. Or, more accurately, that it was formally dirtier. He's not praising the Duvaliers when he remarks upon this, far from it. He's merely reminiscing. But all the time it's hard to get a sense of Brown's resentment towards the regime. He seems acquiescent. That's a trait that someone might expect in a citizen. But Brown is not an Haitian citizen. I've even fancied that Brown might be representative of Greene's own appreciation of Haitian life under Duvalier; perhaps there's something more vital in an Haitian existence than an equivalent one in London or Paris. What could that mean? Well, Brown needs to recognise the sounds of approaching engines in order to calculate whether or not to hide from Duvalier's Tonton Macoutes. Brown has to savour each one of his guests because each might be his last. Everything about Brown's life has a significance due to its precarious nature. Brown, and everyone he knows, is perfectly aware of that. Their lives are similarly finely balanced. And if in his existence as an hotelier Brown's life was troublesome, that's barely of importance when compared to how it became once he involved himself in Jones' political intrigues. Those were deadly. More than half the book is over before Brown involves himself in Jones' revolutionary activities, and then only marginally. Cursory discussions about Greene's book sometimes fail to mention this aspect of Brown's life at all. Brown drives Jones into the Haitian countryside in order to meet a ragtag band of rebels. The revolution ends in failure and destruction for many of its participants, but not for Brown. However, the failed military coup is the cause of his departure from the country. And there Greene's story ends.

I'm interested in Haiti, Haitian writers and Haitian politics. Perhaps I enjoyed this book because of those things. But I did enjoy the book greatly. If you are not interested in these things maybe you will not enjoy it as much as I did. It fascinated me too to learn that there are similarities in the failed uprising of Haitian writer Jacques Stephen Alexis and Greene's character Philipot. However, knowing about Alexis is not necessary in order to enjoy Greene's story, though it might help to explain his motivation for writing it.

Review by Patrick Mackeown, April 2008


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