The Comedians, Graham Greene. New York: Penguin, 2005 (my edition 1976).
Summary: Three men, Brown, Smith, and Jones meet on a ship bound for Haiti during the reign of terror of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. They are the “comedians” who must confront not only the tragedy of Haiti, but themselves.
One of the darkest periods of Haiti’s troubled history was the rule of “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957 until 1971. It was a reign of terror enforced by a secret police, the Tontons Macoute who killed between 30 and 60,000 while many others fled the country.
This is the Haiti to which the three main characters in the book are traveling aboard the Medea. Brown is a hotelier, who inherited the Hotel Trianon from his mother, and is returning, having been unable to sell the property, and drawn by a love affair with the wife of an ambassador. Smith is a former presidential candidate, of the Vegetarian Party, which got 10,000 votes in its election race. He hopes to establish a center for vegetarianism on the island. Jones is a confidence man, who consistently stays just one step of the law, on his tails even aboard ship. He styles himself a major, boasts of battle experience in Burma, Japan, and the Congo, and hopes to secure the rights to establish a golf club for Duvalier and his cronies.
Each faces the shattering of their “comedic” dreams in the face of the brutal realities of Papa Doc and the sinister Tonton Macoute epitomized by Captain Concasseur. From the moment Smith arrives, he must deal with the fleeing minister, Philipot, who commits suicide by his pool, and the later absurdity of his casket being carted away in the back of one of the Tontons vehicles, half sticking out the trunk. This was the same Philipot that Smith and his wife hoped to meet to pursue their vegetarian dream, only to discover that any dream of this sort must be accompanied by bribes and graft. Subsequently, Smith, in his rectitude stands up to the powers and takes his money across the border to the Dominican Republic, shedding his naive ideas about Haiti, but not his principles.
Jones is perhaps the most interesting, going from being held in prison as the law catches up with him at last, to becoming a crony, only to be found out as even shadier than the crooks in the regime. He hides out in the embassy where Brown’s lover, Martha lives and Smith, in his jealousy, traps Jones in his own lies and lures him to lead a band in a quixotic revolt against Duvalier. In doing so, Smith comes face to face with both his longing for and inability to believe in enduring love.
Like other Graham Green works, Brown in particular struggles between faith and doubt, between the Catholicism in which he was raised, and a world seemingly desolate of goodness, of purpose, and of love. It was interesting to me that Dr. Magiot, a Marxist, is the one true believer (other than Smith with his vegetarian-utopian dreams), whose life, and sacrifice is motivated by the long view of the fulfillment of a Communist vision of the future. Greene helps us understand the appeal of Communism for principled people faced with corrupt regimes and a subservient church. More than this, Greene uses the backdrop of the absurd comedic horror of Duvalier’s Haiti to strip the central characters of their comedic illusions and face them with who they were and what ultimately mattered to them.