11 February 2011

The Comedians (Graham Greene)

Speaking of twentieth-century British Catholic novelists (because I was. Waugh, remember?): finished Graham Greene's 1965 Haiti-under-Papa-Doc novel, The Comedians, another that's hung out on my TBR list for ages--two years, in fact, as I added it after reading this wonderful collection of Greene's letters. And considering Baby Doc's recent return to Haiti, this is the closest I come to topical.

It's the story of three unremarkably-named men who meet on a boat to Port-au-Prince: Smith, an American presidential candidate, who ran against Truman on a vegetarian platform, and proudly polled 10,000 votes; the clearly pseudonymed Jones, a trickster of mysterious origins (a trope no one does better than Greene); and Brown, our narrator, another Greene archetype, this one the rootless, jaded, aging British expatriate who becomes caught up in the fruitless idealism of others. 1960s Haiti, the worse for its people, exemplifies another fascination of his, the society in decay. Like 1930s Mexico in The Power and the Glory, postwar Vienna in The Third Man, or colonial Vietnam in The Quiet American, it's a minefield of shifting alliances and sudden violence.

Most interesting, I think, are the Americans. Smith and Mrs. Smith ignore the warnings of experience and book a room at Brown's hotel, once glitzy with glamor and famous for its rum punch, now emptied out by fear. They're stubbornly trusting and optimistic, staunchly anti-racist, willing to jump through mental hoops to explain away or justify the corruption and terror of Duvalier's government and secret police (the Tontons Macoute). Yet they are thoroughly good people, without the fatalist core of so many Greene characters, and the only mutually supportive and happily married couple I can recall in Greene's work, sympathetically portrayed despite the charmingly archaic use of "vegetarian" to mean "flaky."

The Comedians is more of a piece than it is unique, in the prolific scheme of Greene's work (after all, he wrote steadily for 60 years)--but by this I mean that it's part of a wide, deeply moral--and very readable--vision of the twentieth century that can't be missed.

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