The Reading Room

Graham Greene’s The Comedians

Review of Graham Greene’s ‘The Comedians’…

Graham Greene’s The Comedians is one of a number of his novels to have been produced for the big screen. The cast promised much but delivered less, especially Elizabeth Taylor, whom Greene described as ‘hell’. (A review of the film can be found here.) Greene (1904-1991) found himself needing the money which came with selling the film rights and for many critics the book was almost as disappointing as the film. What was clear was that Greene had grown tired of writing novels and had hoped his play Carving a Statue would offer him a way out of the conformity and demands of his publishers and dedicated fans. It didn’t, the critics tore the play to pieces.

First published in 1966, Greene set the book in Haiti, a country under the iron grip of Papa Doc Duvalier’s regime and his infamous Tonton Macout, a rural militia which committed unspeakable acts of violence and murder. Having visited the country and received accounts of life under Papa Doc, Greene wrote the best known and perhaps most damming of all exposés of modern day Haiti to the fury of its leader who consequently set about rubbishing Greene’s name at every opportunity, something of a let-off given Duvalier’s ghoulish reputation.

This exposé shows Greene’s journalistic bent, he pulls few punches and Duvalier’s henchmen are described exactly as they were; smartly dressed and hidden behind hats and dark sunglasses. But Greene fails to capture the truly sinister feel of a country gripped by fear and mistrust, his narrator pours scorn on the regime and militia and despite Greene refuting claims the voice to be his own it must surely be so. There are other familiar Greeneland traits to be found; a comical American couple, a leading man down on his luck, the  inevitable discourse on Catholicism and of course, a complicated love affair. Despite Greene’s lack of enthusiasm for writing novels he still manages to inspire us with moments of classic Greene, particularly in the early part of the story; “For writers it is always said that the first twenty years of life contain the whole of experience-the rest is observation, but I think it is equally true of us all” There is more than a ring of truth to that!

Where one has to be less forgiving is in Greene’s portrayal of the black Haitian, he presents Brown, the narrator with the opportunity to describe the Macout’s expressionless black faces looking like ‘golliwogs’ whilst Petit Pierre, the local journalist is said to resemble a ‘monkey’ and that ‘he seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter’. It doesn’t befit a man of Greene’s intellect but in a slight redemption he gives one black character an uncommonly  substantial part in the novel; Doctor Magiot is presented as an intellectual, a fairly uninspiring one, admittedly, but nonetheless an important part in Brown’s survival and seemingly at odds with Brown’s/Greene’s opinion of the black Haitian in general.

The allure of Brown’s mistress, Martha, is far better written than played by Liz Taylor in the film version. Their affair is doomed to failure, wrapped up in the suffocating blanket  of colonial, ex-pat living she is torn between her feelings for Brown and her remarkable son who clings to  her in a jealously guarded way. Their liaisons are almost entirely restricted to the back of a car, the pressures of a clandestine affair takes its inevitable course; ‘There was little in our love-affair now to balance the fear and the boredom’ But it is in Brown’s description of his loss of virginity that Greene reminds us of what he once gave us in greater measure; ‘My instructress was at least fifteen years older than myself, but in my mind she has always remained the same age, and it is I who have grown older’

Greene’s other chosen characters are farcical in their own way, the Smith’s for  example, he a former ‘Presidential Candidate’, she, a naïve but well intentioned vegetarian who’s reason d’ etre is a championing of vegetarian food throughout the country. There is the charmer ‘Major’ Jones, a natural born liar whose supposed military exploits prove the undoing of him in the light off Brown’s jealousy over Jones’ supposed liaisons with Martha. These are interesting people, easily imagined and more or less likeable and the real strength of the book.

The Comedians was written during a difficult period in Greene’s life, he lost a considerable sum of money in a badly advised deal and his personal life was at a particularly low ebb. He may have been at pains to say at the beginning of the book that ‘Brown is not Greene’ but it is difficult  not to see the author’s character and state of  mind as an influence. I enjoyed the book, it is not Greene’s best but there is enough in there to remind the reader of the master’s pedigree.

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