Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Comedians (Graham Greene) (9.1/10)

As the tragedy in Haiti continues to unfold, Graham Greene's treatment of the corruption and terror of the regime of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and the Tonton Macoute seems newly relevant.  Obviously, the government has changed, though one still hears the cries of corruption from every corner, and the secret police are no longer the primary source of fear for a population that now battles daily for its very survival.  But the core message of The Comedians remains a pointed criticism not only of Haiti's failings, but of our own as mere bystanders (i.e., comedians) in observing a society descend into utter chaos.

Greene is perhaps the most consistently successful writer in the English language when it comes to crafting characters that are hopelessly conflicted within themselves.  The Comedians is no exception.  The American hotelier, Mr. Brown, is a bit player in the revolutionary movement and is occassionally persecuted by the Tonton Macoute, but declines to ever dedicate himself to the cause, instead preferring to focus on his budding affair with Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American Ambassador.  Of course, ultimately the affair is a mere distraction (as are the Smiths' efforts to establish a vegetarian center in a country that is literally falling to pieces about them) and the larger events of Haiti pass them by as they eventually decide one by one to leave the country to its madness.

The counterpoint to the indifference of Brown and Smith is Major Jones, who ultimately dedicates himself to the cause entirely, though he has little actual experience in such affairs.  Greene does not paint him as a hero, however, as his ultimate sacrifice leads not to a new dawn in Haiti, but only to the loss of his life and the flight of his routed troops over the border to the Dominican Republic.  Ultimately, The Comedians is a masterpiece of do-gooder desire and shameful impotence, and the reader walks away as conflicted as the characters that inhabit the story.         



  1. I have only ever read one Grahame Green book but I would love to read more. This review was really good, thanks for reminding me to pick him up again

  2. This review could do with a bit more literacy. The affair is not "budding"--Martha and Brown have been lovers for some time, they quarrel often, and their affair has clearly seen its best days. "Comedians" are not in the least bystanders. The word is French (the language of Haiti) for "actors." There are numerous references to people playing parts. To miss this is to miss one of the two main themes of the novel--whether playing a part is ipso facto dishonest, or whether it can be a way of travelling through falseness to truth. The whole point of the ending is that Jones IS a hero--he has only pretended to be one before, but now he really is. True, the planned coup is a failure, but he has saved the lives of the men--hardly nothing. Did you notice that he keeps telling people his military service was so dangerous that he lost a whole platoon in the jungle? This falsehood is balanced at the end by his actually saving a platoon. It is a neat literary/moral balancing act.
    Not to mention the whole Catholic ends-versus-means and can-good-come-from-evil questions that you do not mention. Perhaps you didn't notice those either?

  3. @Anonymous. Thank you for your comment. French is hardly the language of Haiti, where the population speak Haitian Creole. Moreover, "comedians" is hardly a French term, though it shares a common Latin ancestry with the term that you mean to reference, which is "comediens." The difference is important, in my opinion, as Greene clearly painted the characters of the novel as bit players in their own respective farces (Brown's affair, Jones' false heroism, the Smiths' vegetarian center) while a greater tragedy unfolds about them. This accords with the English definition of "comedians" as actors in a comedy or farce, rather than the more flat and ambiguous French "comediens," which simply means actors. As comedians on a stage of tragedy, Brown, Jones, and the Smiths are, in fact, bystanders as to the main and much more significant action.

    Jones, though he attempts to take a part in the main plot, does so for the wrong reasons and fails miserably. His participation is purely selfish in that it is designed to demonstrate courage to himself and those to whom he has lied about his past. More to the point, his false bravado and meddling make no difference in the tragedy unfolding in the country about them. As such, he is categorically not a hero (except, possibly, to the men that he has misled), but the most foolish and dangerous of all the characters in the novel. That he saves a few men in his failure is small recompense for falsely leading the rebels to believe that his military prowess would lead them to victory.

    As for Greene's preoccupation with Catholicism, Greene hardly wrote a word that was not in some way related to those grand questions of his own life and faith. I assume any reader to be well-acquainted with them. Moreover, those themes comes through much more clearly in The Power and the Glory, among others, which I plan to review at some future point.

    In the end, I suppose that it is a testament to Greene's skill and a hallmark of his many works that he creates characters that can be variously interpreted by his readers as either heroic or foolish depending upon their point of view. While I disagree with your interpretation of the novel's basic message, I respect it.

    You are correct on one point, at least--Brown's affair with Martha is not "budding," but "rekindled." Thank you for pointing that out.

  4. I agree with Anonymous. Jones illustrates an idea that is very dear to a lot of Catholic authors that God often works in ironic ways. Jones, the failed actor who has dreamed of being a hero, bumbles his way into genuine nobility. Philipot who impersonates a French poet becomes a genuine Haitian revolutionary -- both are comedians who end up being enobled by the roles they play. Brown, the pragmatic realist, ends up with nothing.

  5. Very insghtful comments above. I'd like to add something about Greene's Catholicism. It is a matter of fact that Greene did not really believe in a god and hardly practised as a Catholic - he converted in order to marry his first wife. However, he was obsessed by the struggle between good and evil in the human soul - also major Catholic concerns. This theme is central to those of his novels I have read, and certainly it underpins the Comedians. - B Webb

    1. thanks for the comments. indeed, nearly every bit of Greene's writing centers around this struggle of wanting to do what is right and good, but failing to do so because of the inherent weakness or evil of the flesh. this adds a very personal element to all of his work. The Comedians (and The Quiet American) add a twist to this dynamic as they portray characters that believe they are doing good, despite evidence to the contrary. yet they continue acting on this faith to their own -and other's- detriment. and by introducing these elements Greene asks the reader to ponder larger questions: what is faith? what do we believe in? and that makes for very meaningful reading. and very good books!

  6. Our Reading Group is discussing The Comedians and I'm really finding all the previous comments very instructive in their opposing ideas. It is very helpful, and quite challenging to bear these in mind whilst reading.