I was finally driven to read ‘The Comedians’ by my second visit to The Oloffson, the hotel that goes by the name of Trianon in the novel. Moving to Haiti had meant too much to do and too little time to do it in. I had neglected to read Graham Greene’s remarkable novel about Haiti under Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. I knew it would be stupendous – everyone said so and I could draw on the evidence of every other Greene book, all of which I’d read.
But it has taken me 10 weeks to take ‘The Comedians’ off the bookshelf and immerse myself in the brooding menace of 1960s Port au Prince with the Tonton Macoute officers in their soft hats and very dark glasses roaming the land, languid in their brutality, insolent in their certain knowledge they were the law.
Papa Doc was right to fear the power of such masterful ‘faction’ (fact in fiction). Greene later acknowledged with pleasure, “The Comedians, I am glad to say, touched him [Papa Doc Duvalier] on the raw. He attacked it personally in an interview he gave in Le Matin, the paper he owned in Port-au-Prince — the only review I have ever received from a Chief of State. ‘Le livre n’est pas bien ecrit. Comme l’oeuvre d’un ecrivain et d’un journaliste, le livre n’a aucune valeur’.” In fact, the Haitian foreign ministry even published a book that tried to “expose” Greene as “a liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon… unbalanced, sadistic, perverted… a perfect ignoramus… lying to his heart’s content… the shame of proud and noble England… a spy… a drug addict… a torturer.”
Greene always said that it was “the last epithet (that) puzzled me”.
So, ‘The Comedians’ is brilliant, beautifully written and firmly of its time. But is there any point in reading it today (except for pleasure), in a Haiti that is cleansed off dictators (if not the consequences of their actions)?
Yes, because the mindset of a people generally stays the same, whatever the politics or economics of their situation. In Port au Prince 2013, Greene still remains valid. Consider this shrewd observation from the owner of the Hotel Trianon: “I have often noticed that a bribe … has that effect—it changes a relation. The man who offers a bribe gives away a little of his own importance; the bribe once accepted, he becomes the inferior, like a man who has paid for a woman.”
I am glad to have finally got to the story.