‘The Comedians’ play against a backdrop of Haitian poverty and corruption

June 11, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 11, 2013

Some readers might say that there’s very little humor to be found in The Comedians. The opening line of this 1966 novel by prolific and accomplished British author Graham Greene conjures images of dreary monuments to forgotten personages, including “the modest stone that commemorates” a key character in the novel. The narrator, a hotelier named Brown, is ambivalent, impotent (literally, on occasion) and also cynical.

As the novel’s action begins, Brown has failed to sell his hotel in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and is sailing back to “the future of my empty hotel and of a love-affair which was almost as empty.” His hotel is without guests because of the oppressive rule of (the democratically elected) Papa Doc Duvalier and his violent paramilitary loyalists, the Tontons Macoute, who have driven away the foreign tourists that once powered the economy of the impoverished Caribbean island-nation.

Brown’s shipmates include an obscure American third-party presidential candidate named Mr. Smith and a con artist named Mr. Jones. Jones, Smith and his outspoken wife want to establish a center to promote vegetarianism in a city and country of striking poverty. Jones is determined to enrich himself in Haiti’s climate of corruption. But Brown — all but unable to draw guests other than the Smiths to the hotel that he genuinely loves — is more or less adrift. For most of the book, the hotelier mainly strives to serve the Smiths, to intervene on Jones’ behalf with the authorities, and to rendezvous with his lover, the wife of an ambassador.

In this passage, Brown and Smith visit Duvalierville, a boondoggle of a new city neighborhood that authorities hope to establish:

On the flat shoddy plain between the hills and the sea a few white one-room boxes had been constructed, a cement playground, and an immense cockpit which among the small houses looked almost as impressive as the Coliseum. They stood together in a bowl of dust which, when we left the car, whirled around us in the wind of the approaching thunderstorm: by night it would have turned to mud again. I wondered, in the wilderness of cement, where the notional bricks had come from for Doctor Philipot’s coffin.

‘Is that a Greek theatre?’ Mr. Smith asked with interest.

‘No. It’s where they kill cocks.’

His mouth twitched, but he put the pain away from him: to feel pain was a kind of criticism. He said, ‘I don’t see many folk around here.’

The Secretary for Social Welfare said proudly, ‘There were several hundred on this very spot. Living in miserable mud huts. We had to clear the ground. It was quite a major operation.’

‘Where did they go?’

‘I suppose some went into towns. Some into the hills. To relatives.’

‘Will they come back when the city’s built?’

‘Oh well, you know, we are planning for a better class of people here.’

It’s worth bearing in mind one of the original criteria for a comedy — namely, a happy ending. In odd ways, all of the book’s main characters do arrive at happy, albeit imperfect, resolutions.

But there is real humor in The Comedians, although it tends to be on the dry side. Some of it comes from seeing the Smiths pursuing their quixotic mission. Some of it derives from seeing Brown and Jones embark, as the book nears its conclusion, upon noble quests for ignoble reasons.

The action, such as it is, in The Comedians unfolds at a leisurely pace; this book is not for the impatient reader. But this journey through Haiti’s often dark circumstances is ultimately a rewarding one for readers, much as it is for its characters.

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