Review of “The Comedians” by Graham Greene

In Literature on 02/03/2012 at 11:06

“Papa Doc is a bulwark against Communism.”

The myth of the 20th century is that western liberal democracies defeated barbarism and instituted a new, civilized world order that effectively brought history to a close. And the epilogue to that triumphal history was written upon the occasion when Reagan abjured the evil empire to, “tear down this wall!” Greene’s novels are important because they undermine this myth. They show us that conflict never ended in the 20th century. They show us the truth about the conditions of the much of the world during the height of the Cold War. This was a world outside the narrow island of high employment, Keynesian economic reforms and vast material production. Indeed the conditions that Greene’s  novels explore have been out of step with the orientalist and exoticist notions of how foreign cultures ought to be. Hence his settings have suffered the  ideologically motivated attack of being “Greenland” – a putative faceless and mat background for the drama that unfolds in novels like “The Comedians”, “Out Man In Havana” and “The Quiet American”. Greene wasn’t interested in perpetuating the stereotyped notions, the false mysticism and immersion in the analgesic of otherness that attends so much of what we think about when we think about foreign countries. Instead, he shows us what Haiti, Cuba and Vietnam and other countries on the periphery of the world capitalist empire had really become: armed encampments for protecting commercial interests against the democratic aspirations of third world peoples.

“Violent deaths are natural here, he died of his environment.”

The truth is that on the frayed outer edges that comprised much of much of the globe, late modernism had introduced a condition that was remarkably similar all across the board – the ugly dictatorships of Diem, Papa Doc, and Batista brought about a social scene that tended to give these countries a similarity that overwhelmed the “traditional culture” that travel writers, liberal sentimentalists and beat anthropologists made a living cooing about. Their craving for authenticity, born of their alienated social arrangements, had made them see an idealized version of the reality that was so apparent and undeniable to a traveler like Greene.

“My first thoughts were selfish ones: you cannot be blamed if a man kills himself in your swimming pool.”

In most of his stories that deal with distant locales, Greene is as interested in showing us the truth behind the social reality of our tourist destinations as he is in diagnosing the ennui or anomie that was the inner reality of the Western soul. His stories assert a link between the fetid authoritarianism of former colonial countries and the spiritual destitution so symptomatic of late 20th century life. Thus in “The Comedians” we are introduced to a man with the flat name of Brown, a character in the ironic mode, who after leaving his Jesuitical training, passively marks time as his life passes, until the discovery of a body of a former friend in his pool forces him to take action.

In the unfolding action, “The Comedians” is interesting for the way Greene manipulates time to tell the story. The book begins with a proemic account of a friend of his, named Jones. This is a man who has a memorial on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The as of yet unidentified narrator says that unlike the generals and dignitaries that are officially sanctified by the state, Jones has genuinely earned his respect. The book then proceeds to move from this position into the past, to show us the circumstances, events and final drama that shows the narrator’s on role in Jones becoming worthy of his cenotaph. Throughout the novel we have to bear in mind this first opening paragraph because Jones, as one of the three comedians who give the novel its title, seems an unlikely hero. As a confidence man, a boaster, and a philanderer given to mendacity, there seems little chance that he can breathe new life into old notions of service and commitment to the cause of civilization. And yet this is what the novel convincingly portrays, doing so through the eyes of a middle-aged man who had otherwise given up any hope of a daring or engaged involvement in life, a man who was set to dissipate himself with extra-marital affairs and in so doing utterly failed to live up to the legacy of his mother who had earned honours as a member of the French resistance. (This was indeed an apt characterization of the inferiority complex that was endemic of the generation born to those who had fought in the war. What accomplishment could they rely on for a sense of esteem? Thus they found solace in a flight from the political accomplishment itself.)

Two noteworthy themes continue from Greene’s other novels into “The Comedians”. One is the way that overweening pride can put a person at a tactical disadvantage to his or her enemies. In both “The Comedians” and “Our Man In Havana” a major obstacle is overcome because the protagonist is able to use the hybris of an opponent to his advantage. The police captain of “Our Man In Havana” is tricked into playing a drinking game with chess pieces, the results of which take him out of action so that a resolving scheme can unfold. And in “The Comedians”, the narrator Brown traps Jones in his own boasting into joining the insurrectionist cause against the Duvalier regime. The second theme concerns the power that a kind of homely decency can sometimes exercise over evil. That is to say the agents of evil, the gangsters of “Brighton Rock” and the Tontons Macoute of “The Comedians” are susceptible to having a moral sense piqued, if the right sort of character can do so in the right time and with the right amount of ferocity. This theme in fact preoccupies much of “Brighton Rock” and comes up once in “The Comedians” when the formidable Mrs. Smith rescues Jones from a beating and humiliation by the sheer effort of deprecations against the perpetrators. This offers the insight that the most efficacious force against injustice isn’t always main force but can also be the forceless force of persuasion and moral censure.

“A few Communists can always be found, like Jews and Catholics. Chiang Kai-Shek, the heroic defender of Formosa, fed us, you remember, into the boilers of railway engines.”

Like certain other novels in Greene’s corpus, the underlying moral of the story is rejuvenation out of the torpor or accidia that the self-satisfied Western subject finds itself in. Of course, today this sense of meaninglessness would easily be countered with the right apo-diazepam prescription. For Greene’s formulation, self-medication through alcohol, and drinking is indeed a recurring motif of his, is only so effective a respite from an inescapable demand that the protagonist act decisively. In Greene’s universe, “sooner or later…one has to take sides, if one is to remain human.” This is the basic dialectic that all Greene’s novels expose: we have created a world so perfectly suited to meeting our needs, that we no longer find any place for ourselves in it. That is we continue to have no place in our technological utopia provided we don’t find a “way of escape” from the logic that governs that world, that is a logic that keeps us as passive spectators, or items of furniture within its comfortable parlor: “Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent.”

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