GRAHAM GREENE’S “THE COMEDIANS”
“Set in Haiti, where terror rides and death comes frequently and swiftly
in the night, it is a story of love and adventure, hope and disillusion.”
In 1791, a self-educated slave in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Dominique led a successful revolution against Napoleon’s France. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 and prompted by the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Rights Of Man”, a slave named Toussaint Breda (history calls him Toussaint L'Ouverture – also the “black Napoleon”) led this slaves’ revolt and, with the help of English and Spanish forces (and the Yellow Fever), defeated the French and created the independent nation now known as Haiti. Throughout its more than two centuries of existence, Haiti has been characterized by abject poverty, political instability and repression, superstition and despair, to which were added widespread death and destruction on January 12, 2010.
Just by coincidence, I started re-reading one of my favorite books by my favorite author on the weekend preceding the devastating earthquake in Haiti. In 1966, Graham Greene’s brilliant novel “THE COMEDIANS” was published, a story set in the Haiti of the despotic Papa Doc Duvalier and his secret police (the Tontons Macoute). Greene had first visited Haiti in the 1950’s and had made several visits before 1966’s publication of his book. THE COMEDIANS drew intense resentment from Papa Doc and precluded Greene from ever stepping foot on Haitian soil again. This is a novel that incorporates most of Greene’s themes (betrayal, loss of faith, redemption and commitment) against the backdrop of poverty, repression and brutality that seems to have characterized Haiti forever.
The principal non-Haitian characters (the comedians) meet on a ship bound for Haiti. Brown (the narrator) is a non-committed half-Englishman returning to Port au Prince, after a few months’ absence. He is returning, somewhat reluctantly to resume his role as owner/manager of a hotel in Port au Prince he recently inherited from his mother. Brown finds himself involved in the lives and deaths of several Haitians as well as the lives of the other comedians and the death of one. Smith, a one-time US Presidential Candidate (he received over 10,000 votes in 1948) and his wife are dedicated vegetarians and are bound for Haiti on a mission to improve the diet of the locals and hope to convince the government of Papa Doc to work with them. Jones (he calls himself Major Jones) is a shadowy character who may or may not be the military man he claims to be and whose involvement with the anti-Papa Doc rebels is fatal.
The fascination of Graham Greene’s story lies, not only in the descriptions of Papa Doc’s Haiti, but against this background, how these comedians become involved with the Haitians who inhabit that particular hell on earth. Dr. Magiot, a committed Communist and opponent of Papa Doc, was also one of Brown’s mother’s lovers as well as her trusted physician and advisor. Brown gets to know, admire and trust the Haitian doctor and, through him, starts to learn something about himself, his faith and his own lack of commitment. Through other Haitians, one of whom works at his hotel, Brown gets to witness an hours long voodoo ceremony in the hills beyond Port au Prince. Born into the Catholic faith, Brown recognizes some of the Latin phrases, the “Agnus Deis” and “Libera nos a malo”, he witnesses a priest biting off the head of a chicken and he hears another priest summoning the gods of Dahomey, including Baron Samedi, the white skull-faced, top-hatted, sunglass-wearing voodoo god of death. Greene makes several references to Papa Doc Duvalier as “Baron Samedi” and the Tontons Macoute all wore dark sunglasses. The imagery is rather stark.
It is interesting that Greene’s Catholicism was used by the slaves to disguise the beliefs they carried with them from West Africa, the combination of the two becoming Haiti’s belief system called voduo (voodoo). The slaves would publicly recite OUR FATHERS and HAIL MARYS to convince their masters that they had, indeed, adopted Christianity, while keeping their African rituals intact.
The whole question of faith is summed up perfectly in Dr.Magiot’s letter to Greene’s narrator, Mr. Brown, toward the end of the story.
"If you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?"
It seems that, in January 2010, all of Haiti’s masks were dropped and, while the Haitian people may not have abandoned all their faiths, their faiths may have abandoned them. It may be that the only god who mattered anymore was Baron Samedi, their voodoo god of death.