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Graham Greene: The Comedians

This is Greene’s Haiti novel, set in that country when Papa Doc ruled and the country is falling apart. The country was controlled by the Tonton Macoutes, the Americans had pulled out and the economy was in total collapse. The action starts on board the Medea, a cargo ship going from Philadelphia and New York to Port-au-Prince. On board there are a few passengers, in particular the improbably named Brown, Jones and Smith. (Greene, through his narrator, Brown, comments on this improbability but it does seem that these are not aliases.) Brown is the narrator. He is British but was born in Monte Carlo. Not only did he not know his father, it seems that his mother barely did, though she insisted that he was called Brown. Brown was educated at a Jesuit school (chosen, because they would not object too strongly to their fees not being paid). He had a varied career but is happy when his mother summons him to Haiti (they had barely spoken for years). She owns a hotel. She has summoned him because she is dying and, conveniently, dies soon after. Two-thirds of the hotel is left to him and one-third to her black lover. Brown soon buys out the lover and turns the hotel into a successful operation. However, he flees to New York when things get bad and is returning to check on his hotel.

The other two main passengers are Smith and Jones. Smith is a well-meaning American who ran for president in the 1948 US Presidential Election, on the vegetarian ticket. He got around 10,000 votes, mainly in his home state of Wisconsin. He is facetiously called the Presidential candidate throughout the book. He is accompanied by his wife whom he invariably calls Mrs. Smith. Mr. and Mrs. Smith have done good works throughout the US (e.g. fighting segregation) but are in Haiti to promote their favourite cause, vegetarianism. Finally, Mr. Jones, who prefers to be known as Major Jones, a title that no-one thinks he is entitled to, though for no apparent reason, is the slightly odd one out. His reason for coming to Haiti is not clear but it is clear that he is exaggerating his past, including his courageous service in Burma during the war. Brown invites both the Smiths and Mr. Jones to stay in his hotel.

Once in Haiti, Brown finds his hotel more or less intact, though with no guests but a dead man, who turns out to be the minister to whom the Smiths have a letter of introduction. The Smiths soon arrive while Jones seems to have been detained by the police. Several plot threads then develop. First is Brown’s affair with Martha, the wife of a South American ambassador. She is German and the daughter of a Nazi war criminal. They had been having affair when he was there before and carry on. The ambassador may or may not know but it is clear that things are not well between husband and wife. Secondly there is the attempt of the Smiths to set up their vegetarian complex. They eventually realize that it will cost too much in bribes and give up the idea. Jones is a plot in himself. Brown and Smith visit him in prison and he has clearly been knocked around yet, a few days later he is a colonel, working closely with the Tonton Macoutes. Finally, there is the resistance to Papa Doc and Tonton Macoutes. As a good Greene hero, Brown tries to stand aside but pretty well everyone he deals with is involved in some way or the other, so he ends up helping to a certain degree, despite himself.

Greene tells an exciting story of seemingly normal people trying to struggle in the chaos that was Papa Doc’s Haiti and showing how the regime brutalized and exploited the population (Greene is, of course, very sympathetic to the exploited). Brown is a fairly interesting character, a man living on his wits, with few roots but basically interested in having an easy life. Smith is a decent man, trying to do his best but, finally, unable to overcome the difficulties he faces. But it is Jones who is the most interesting. He pops up in strange places and his motives are not always clear. We always have a strong suspicion that he is not what he seems and that his various claims are exaggerated or even totally bogus. Of course, at the end, he does surprise us somewhat. Not one of Greene’s best but still a novel worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1966 by Bodley Head