Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Comedians by Graham Greene

The ambassador said, 'We mustn't complain too much of being comedians--it's an honourable profession. If only we could be good ones the world might gain at least a sense of style. We have failed--that's all. We are bad comedians, we aren't bad men.'

'For Christ's sake,' Martha said in English, as though she were addressing me directly, 'I'm no comedian.' We had forgotten her. She beat with her hands on the back of the sofa and cried to them in French now, 'You talk so much. Such rubbish. My child vomited just now. You can smell it still on my hands. He was crying with pain. You talk about acting parts. I'm not acting any part. I do something. I fetch a basin. I wipe his mouth. I take him into my bed.'

Greene's books always have something both of the religious and the political, though they are not always balanced. The Power and the Glory wasn't as concerned with the totalitarianism that had seized Mexico as it was the trial of one man's soul within it; The Comedians, as seems to be the case with Greene's later work, is more concerned with earthly things.

It opens on a ship bound for Haiti. On board is the narrator, Brown, returning to the hotel he owns in Port-au-Prince left empty by the dearth of tourists at the height of Papa Doc Duvalier's regime. Also present are Mr. Smith, a committed political activist hoping to start a vegetarian center in Haiti, and Major Jones, an affable man of dubious military connection. The blandness of their names is not lost on Brown, who sees in the three of them a sort of interchangeability that symbolizes their disconnect from the Haitian political climate.

They are the Comedians--not serious actors, not real players in this political drama. Brown himself is a citizen of Monaco, which is almost like being a citizen of nowhere at all, and had inherited his hotel from a mother he had known only in the few hours before her death. Like Smith and Jones, he does not belong to Haiti, but neither does he belong to anywhere:

The first colours touched the garden, deep green and deep red--transience was my pigmentation; my roots would never go deep enough anywhere to make me a home or make me secure with love.

But Brown is mistaken--the three of them are not as detached as they believe themselves to be. As soon as Brown arrives at his hotel, he finds the body of the Minister of Health in his pool, which sets off a chain of events that leave him and the others at odds with the Tontons Macoutes, Papa Doc's not-so-secret police. Brown fails to see that his roots have grown deep enough to be regarded as weeds and pruned away.

The Comedians is not my favorite of Greene's novels. There is something of it that seems a little "Greene-by-the-numbers." The facelessness suggested by Brown's name only underscores how neatly he parallels almost all of Greene's heroes: wry, disillusioned, and most importantly, a lapsed Catholic.

There is also something of the heightened political element that seems to bring out Greene at his bitterest. Greeneland is a tortured place, whether it be a bitterly oppressed Mexico, a war-ravaged Sierra Leone, or an isolated leper colony. Yet, when Greene focuses on matters of faith he seems to find hope even in the darkest places and in the most crippled hearts. The political Greene, by contrast, seems to be more of a cynic. Though the scurrilous Jones has his redemption in the end, the smallness of his efforts compare unfavorably to the persistence of the Haitian regime.

Though Greene's lapsed Catholics never seem to resume their faith, they end each novel inches closer to God than they were before. But The Comedians seems fonder of Communism than of Catholicism, and without a hint of religious awakening Greene's Haiti seems, like Brown's soul, irredeemably desolate.

No comments: