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Tragic Comedians

The Comedians

by Graham Greene
Viking, 309 pp., $5.75

As one grows older the writing of a novel does not become more easy, and it seemed to me when I wrote the last words that I had reached an age when another full-length novel was probably beyond my powers.”

—Graham Greene after finishing A Burnt-Out Case, his ninth
novel.

He could not have been more wrong. This new novel, his tenth, bears no trace of slackening or diminution, it is not an old hand’s brewing up—though the hand admittedly is very cunning—the mixture as before; it is instead a work of strength and freshness, and in its core there lies the steel coil of compulsion.

It is of course, on one level of excellence, a story, a very good story as we have come to expect (the demands, also, that are made of writers as they grow in age and stature do not become more easy), beautifully deployed; it opens in neat tradition on board ship. On the Medea of the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company bound for Haiti from the United States, the three pivotal characters first converge. Brown, Smith, Jones: “Three names, interchangeable like comic masks in a farce.” Brown, the narrator, represents an essence of a man alone; uncommitted, unattached. He has no family, no country, no home; he has, or so he is convinced, no allegiance, no belief. He is l’homme seul.

Brown is a British subject—one would just call him an Englishman—born at Monte Carlo, educated at a Jesuit college. There he won prizes for Latin verse and composition, and fought an early and abortive vocation (“The sense of vocation hung around me like the grippe, a miasma of unreality…”). Since then Brown’s life appears to have been directed by the more literal turns of chance: an afternoon at a casino, a postcard delivered against odds, and sustained, neither badly nor securely, by his own efforts and wits. (The brief account of his career is both deliciously farcical and already infused with sadness.) Now he has reached the end of his fifties and is warily approaching the dictator-struck island of Haiti because it is the only place on earth where he might be said to have a stake, a love affair, and a piece of property. But the affair is with a married woman and already corroded by distrust, the property an empty hotel (the tourists have vanished from that mini-Naziland), improbably acquired and precariously held. Conversely, Mr. Smith, an older man than Brown, is solid with convictions, marriage, a course of action. He is proposing to visit the Negro Republic to combine a holiday and what he calls, with equal humility and firmness, his mission. “Neither Mrs. Smith nor I,” he says, “are ones for undiluted pleasure.”

…Once we took our vacation in Tennessee. It was an unforgetable experience. You see we went as Freedom Riders. There was an occasion in Nashville on the way down when I feared for Mrs. Smith.

When Brown remarks on that being a courageous way of spending a holiday, Mr. Smith answers,

We have a great love for colored people.” He seemed to think it was the only explanation needed.

MR. SMITH, as we can see, is an American, a genuine American; his home is Wisconsin, and his wife discloses that he was Presidential Candidate in 1948. The British passengers and Dutch purser confusedly try to recall the name of Truman’s opponent in that year. Mr. Smith explains gently that the issue he was campaigning on was not that of either of the two great parties. As an idealist he had very little chance to win, says Mrs. Smith, who might have made as good a candidate as her husband, if not a better one, “but we were not at the bottom of the poll.” The Smith issue was vegetarianism and they hope to carry it to Haiti now: vegetarianism not as a mere diet but a universal remedy. Meat and fish (“I’m afraid we are a little dogmatic about eggs”) and alcohol cause acidity, and acidity causes passion; if we really eliminated acidity from the human body we would eliminate passion, and so violence, cruelty, and war. Brown comes up with the quick answer: Then you you would stop the world. Mr. Smith reproves him: “I did not say love.”

The Presidential Candidate is a tender creation. Like Pyle in The Quiet American, the book with which The Comedians has some affinity, he is an innocent. But while Pyle was a rather repulsive article, callow and ignorant and causing much harm, Mr. Smith is made a really good man, a loveable man, with some grandeur, one who even though he blunders gives some comfort here and now to his fellow men. Mr. Smith, as Brown says of him, “was born with peace in his heart instead of the splinter of ice.”

Of the third man, in earlier middleage, a chummy chap as he might have described himself, in a natty suit, using the wrong slang, nothing precise is known at that stage except that he is evasive, a bit louche, a bit off. He has dark round Pekinese eyes and a small black moustache, and Brown would have taken him for a French businessman, but his name is Jones—another British subject—and he claims to have served as a major in the war. He talks of commandos, jungle-fighting, teaching the Japs a trick or two.

What unit were you in?”

Oh, I was a bit of a drifter even in those days. I moved around.”

Jones expresses hopes that there may be a few pickings in Haiti for a man of imagination; but cables of inquiry have already reached the captain and it is not improbable that Jones is drifting towards the island as a fugitive from some justice.

Brown and the purser try to warn the Smiths and Jones. Mr. Smith carries an introduction to the Haitian Minister for Social Welfare. Minister for what? says the purser. “You won’t find any welfare there. You should see the rats as big as terriers….” Jones mentions the army boys. They’ve all gone, he is told. “The chief-of-staff…is hiding in the Venezuelan embassy. The general is safe in Santo Domingo…there are three colonels and two majors in prison—if they are alive.” The Americans have left, aid has ceased, the British ambassador expelled, the Metropolitan bishop excommunicated, the papal nuncio is in Rome. All power is in the hands of the Tontons Macoute.

And who are they?

The President’s bogey-men; they wear dark glasses and call on their victims after dark.”

The purser, a safe and jovial Dutchman, speaks with glee, Brown is in dead earnest, and it is here that one becomes aware that below the trim and fascinating narrative there runs an underswell of passion, a rage of horror, pity, anguish. “We seem to be sailing,” Jones says, “towards a strange land.” But Mrs. Smith declares, “We don’t scare easily.”

LAST night on board there takes place one of those misfiring celebrations, a minor Graham Greene setpiece of the macabre and the drab, and when the party has fizzled out the incalculable Jones seems to have the last word already here, “Shut-eye is the answer to it all, isn’t it?”

Next day the ship docks. They have arrived in “the shabby land of terror,” of road-blocks and searches, tortures by secret police, murder, and untrained, ill-armed rebels in the hills. For once Mr. Greene breaks through the crust of fiction, in his dedicatory letter to the book he states (wisely, I think), “Poor Haiti itself and the character of Dr. Duvalier’s rule are not invented, the latter not even blacked for dramatic effect. Impossible to deepen that night.”

Fear of unspeakable things is in the air. Unspeakable things happen. In the prison cells; at night; in the palace, where the President himself is said to be watching torture scenes. Contemporary Haiti is a little model of a totalitarian hell. The size is only relevant—quantitative judgments do not apply to suffering—in so far as it makes it easier to see through the entire thing: It is wholly senseless, evil, merciless, and the only driving motives are lust for power, cruelty, greed, fear. In The Comedians the worst takes place off stage (and in one case is even prevented by the courage and single-heartedness of Mrs. Smith), Graham Greene gives us the atmosphere—the current fails at night, the fountain in the public park is dry, the telephone has ceased to work—he does not go to James Bond lengths. He does not have to. We know that which we know; we have lived in our time. Haiti was not, is not, will not be the only place. The father of the woman whom Brown tries to love was a man, long dead, for fear of whom Germans once cut their throats (I do not want to use here the key phrase of those link passages which in its own place is most potent). Yes, Brown says, “The situation isn’t abnormal. It belongs to human life. Cruelty is like a searchlight. It sweeps from one spot to another. We can only escape it for a time.”

Like Mrs. Smith, Brown and Jones do not scare too easily; yet escape or defeat, taken with some elegance, are bound to be their course. Almost at once all are involved with violent death—the Smiths sipping yeastrol in the John Barrymore suite of Brown’s Hotel—and the monstrous Concasseur of the bogey police. They are tragic comedians. Native players join them. The barman crippled by Concasseur, the sudden widow of the Minister for Social Welfare, the young Haitian poet who in happier days composed delicate, derivative, Baudelairian verse and now dreams of a Bren gun and the hills; Martha, the woman whom Brown makes love to—“the tangle of legs in the Peugeot”—and too often quarrels with after curfew in the parked car with the C. D. plates; Martha’s sad husband, the ambassador of a small South American state, with the wounded eyes and the fat cigar; Angel, their inquisitive small son; and Dr. Magiot, another key-figure, “a tall elderly negro with a Roman face blackened by the soot of cities and hair dusted with stone.” He is a heart specialist trained under Chardin in Paris (“You will not find anyone more competent nearer than New York. I doubt whether you will find one there”). Dr. Magiot is courteous, learned, paternal, wise; he is the only doctor left who is brave enough to go out at night to tend the sick and dead, and he is the only character in the book portrayed as wholly noble. Like Mr. Smith he is a good man, but unlike him the doctor is not touched by absurdity. And he, too, has faith. On his shelves there stands a copy of Marx’s Capital. “Are you a Communist, Dr. Magiot?” Mrs. Smith asks him sternly. It is a question Brown had wanted to ask him many times.

I believe, madame, in the future of communism.”

I asked if you were a Communist?” “My dear—we have no right…”

comes from Mr. Smith. The doctor answers that to be a Communist here is illegal.

So I may say that I believe in the future of communism; that is a philosophical outlook.”

And Brown envies him—he is lucky to believe—and is moved to talk to Martha about his own lost vocation.

THE BOOK is rich in incident and situations, deceptively seamless switches from glimpse to briefer glimpse, revelation to set scene; marvelous scenes, of farce, of black drama, volte face, quick transition—the interrupted funeral; the search in the captain’s cabin (the captain confounding the armed bully with his extra territorial claim, “Pas à Haiti?” the bully whines, utterly at sea; “Vous êtes en Hollande,” the captain replies); the nocturnal charade in the South American embassy; the Voodoo trances; Jones’s confession—night again—in the cemetery. And all the time it moves: There is now no Anglo-Saxon writer alive who can tell a story better than Mr. Graham Greene; the action takes but a few weeks. Mr. Smith, faced by unpalatable reality, grows yet remains himself. For one short moment he takes No far an answer. ” ‘It was different at Nashville,’…and there were tears in his voice.” Perhaps we seem rather comic figures, he asks of Brown. “Not comic; heroic.”

One lives and learns,” says the wife. “It is not the end.”

Jones also grows. The poor little bounder becomes human, likeable, honorable even after a fashion. At the end Jones measures up to the Hemingway dictum of grace under pressure; he chooses to meet the dangers he had boasted to have lived. Jones, too, is heroic. And there is now in a country far from home “a modest stone to commemorate [him] on the far side of the road which he failed to cross.”

Only Brown, the most civilized, intelligent, and articulate of the three, remains sterile, alone, sad, a survivor incapable of love or guilt. The book condemns him. The message reads clear. Brown hears a sermon in a church and receives a posthumous letter from his friend, Dr. Magiot. The text of the first is, “Let us go up to Jerusalem and die with him.” Though Christ condemned the disciple who struck off the ear of the high priest’s servant, one’s heart goes out in sympathy to all who are moved to violence by the suffering of others. The Church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference even more. Violence can be the expression of love, indifference never. It is better to be wrong than to be right with the cold and the craven. Let us go up to Jerusalem and die with him. In the same vein Dr. Magiot pleads with Brown to return to faith. “Communists and Catholics have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate…. There is always an alternative to the faith one loses. Or it is the same faith under another mask?”

Read in cold blood, out of immediate reach of violence, the message appears one of ultimate resignation, perhaps despair. Faith for the sake of faith; blind action. Surely the choices before us have always been wider than that? The flaw (to me) lies in the implied limitation: communism (even if of a theoretical never-never brand), the Church (revealed religion), faddism. Surely it is side-stepping the issue to have hung on Mr. Smith, the man of peace, the albatross of crankiness? Surely we have begun to find out about some more practicable and intelligent techniques for reducing human aggressiveness? What if Mr. Greene had put his talent to the even rarer creation of a good man whose heart was matched by his brain? But then such a man would hardly have chosen to give his theories a try in Dr. Duvalier’s Haiti (he would have been at home in Aldous Huxley’s Island), and we would have had a very different story. A work must spring from the artist’s own concepts and vision. There is little use in quarrelling with these: We can only receive what he is able to give. The Comedians is a fine and important novel, and a very moving one. There is more to remember Major Jones by than that modest stone at the roadside.

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