The Nightmare Republic

In The Comedians, Graham Greene peered into the heart of Caribbean darkness. James Ferguson examines this morailty tale set in Papa Doc's Haiti

  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier
  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier

Few novels have captured the atmosphere of a place quite as powerfully as Graham Greene’s The Comedians (1966). The place in question is Haiti, the most enigmatic of Caribbean countries, and indeed for many people Greene’s fictional evocation is Haiti. First-time travellers there often take a copy of the novel with them, and it was once rumoured that during the time of “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the infamous dictator, Haiti’s airport contained a small mountain of copies of The Comedians, confiscated by customs officers.

Papa Doc’s Haiti was, of course, an ideal locale for Greene, who always relished a fly-blown tropical setting for his stories of guilt and moral anguish. Sierra Leone, Vietnam and the badlands of Mexico had already provided him with suitably exotic backgrounds by the time he visited Haiti for the last time in 1963. He had been there in the relatively carefree days of the 1950s, when Papa Doc was still nothing more than a shy country doctor. But 1963 marked a moment of extreme paranoia, with the dictatorship under pressure from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, from armed guerrillas, and from rival pretenders to the presidential palace. Duvalier’s thugs, the notorious Tontons Macoutes, were on the rampage, torturing and extorting at will. And the Americans, fearful that Haiti might go the way of revolutionary Cuba, turned their backs on the whole unsavoury situation.

Greene was treated with suspicion, forbidden from travelling around the country, and sickened by the excesses of Papa Doc’s regime. He later recalled that some weeks after he left, all the capital’s schoolchildren were forced to attend the public execution of two captured guerrillas in a cemetery.

Into this nasty mix of squalor and terror Greene places the three main characters of The Comedians, men with very ordinary, indeed ridiculously everyday, names: Smith, Jones and Brown. They meet on a ship bound for Port-au-Prince, each heading for Haiti with a different mission. The narrator Brown (they are never known by anything other than their surnames) is a strange rootless individual who has ended up running a hotel; Jones, a man with a dubious past, is already under suspicion of some unspecified crime; and Smith, most implausibly of all, is a militant American vegetarian and former US presidential candidate, on his way to persuade the Haitian government to open a vegetarian centre.

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The names, the aura of improbability, the murky personal histories, all suggest that these are not conventional characters, but rather aliases, or roles to be played out against the backdrop of Duvalier’s malignant regime. And this is in fact what happens as the novel develops, for each of the three men is increasingly defined by his response to the presence of evil and by his eventual acceptance of the fact that it must be fought. In this way, the comedians, those playing an inauthentic part in some morally ambiguous performance, become real men. This process involves sacrifice or loss: Brown abandons his listless affair with Martha, the ambassador’s wife, and leaves Haiti; Smith loses his ideals in the face of sheer tyranny; and Jones ultimately lays down his life to become a true hero.

Papa Doc, the man who had the Lord’s Prayer rewritten in his own honour, never actually appears in the novel, but his presence is ubiquitous and deeply sinister. An illuminated message proclaiming, “I am the Haitian flag, united and indivisible,” flashes on and off in an otherwise pitch-black Port-au-Prince, darkened by power cuts, while in the popular imagination the fedora-clad president is inseparable from Baron Samedi, voodoo’s top-hatted guardian of cemeteries and crossroads. His apparatus of terror is personified by Concasseur, the archetypal Tonton Macoute, with his dark glasses and unwavering stare.

But perhaps the most memorable character of all is based on another real-life figure. The prying journalist, Petit Pierre, a so-called gossip columnist but obviously a police informer, is none other than Aubelin Jolicoeur (the real name is even more bizarre than the invented one), an insinuating individual who haunted Port-au-Prince’s main hotels until the 1990s in search of gossip and conspiracy, real or imagined. All-seeing and all-knowing, Petit Pierre is the incarnation of collaboration, of amorality in an evil system.

here Greene excels is in his evocation of Port-au-Prince’s particular atmosphere, its mix of beauty and ugliness, its ominous moods and landscapes. He describes the quirky Victorian Gothic architecture of the upper-class suburbs as well as the spectacular filth of the dockside. His account of a police station is filled with menace, while the brothel that Brown occasionally visits is a masterpiece of closely observed detail, from the luke-warm 7-Up to the paradoxical innocence of the girls themselves.

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Some of Greene’s images have taken on almost mythic proportions: the crazy architectural excesses of the Hotel Trianon, the body of the murdered minister in the hotel swimming pool, the late afternoon storm clouds gathering over the mountains. A city of roadblocks and beggars, Greene’s Port-au-Prince is very much the capital of the land he memorably dubbed the “nightmare republic”. At one point Brown recalls leaving Haiti by plane and looking down on the eroded mountains that surround the city:

What a wonderful place the city had been to leave, as I looked down at it through the free and lucid air, the plane pitching in the thunderstorm which loomed as usual over Kenscoff. The port seemed tiny compared with the vast wrinkled wasteland behind, the dry uninhabited mountains, like the broken backbone of an ancient beast excavated from the clay, stretching into the haze towards Cap Haïtien and the Dominican border.

Things may not have changed much for the better in poor Haiti, but Greene’s novel had one or two unexpected consequences. Aubelin Jolicoeur subsequently enjoyed a sort of literary notoriety, posing at the bar of the hotel that Greene had described for countless journalists and other visitors. The hotel, the Oloffson, became the chic place to stay in Port-au-Prince, and guests could even sleep in the Graham Greene room and look out from the verandah onto the famous swimming pool. But perhaps most strangely, Papa Doc himself took issue with the novel, complaining in an interview with the state-owned Le Matin that “the book is not well written. As the work of a journalist, the book has no value.”

And five years later, the dictator went to the trouble of producing a glossy brochure aimed at Greene, entitled “Graham Greene Démasqué/Finally Exposed”, and distributed free-of-charge from Haitian embassies. It described the author as “a liar, a crétin, a stool-pigeon . . . unbalanced, sadistic, a pervert . . . the shame of proud and noble England . . . a spy . . . a drug addict . . . a torturer.” It was a strangely fitting tribute from the tyrant whose malevolent rule was so atmospherically captured by one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.