Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: The Comedians


François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his secret police, the Tonton Macoute, ruled Haiti from his election in 1957 until his death in 1971. As tin pot dictators go, Papa Doc was particularly repressive, using bribery, extortion, and confiscation to enrich his cohorts; crippling the country by causing a mass exodus of educated professionals; and killing as many as 30,000 of his countrymen.

In The Comedians, Graham Greene tells the story of Papa Doc’s ascendency from the perspective of three foreigners: narrator Brown, owner of a once-chic ex-pat hotel in Port-au-Prince; former US Presidential candidate Smith, in Haiti with his formidable wife to open an institute of vegetarianism; and third rate mercenary Jones, hoping his fabricated credentials will earn him fame and fortune on one side of the conflict or the other.

Brown, Smith, and Jones are the comedians of the title, but only in the older sense of the word comedy as political satire or a work that emphasizes the ridiculous and the absurd in human life. There is humor in the book – the whole bit, for example, about Smith running for President on a vegetarian ticket is an ongoing and funny gag. But the humor is often dark, as when Smith doesn’t understand that there is no need to teach Haitians the benefits of a vegetarian diet since they cannot afford meat.

Although Greene keeps the tone light and the story moves along at a steady clip, there is a sad inevitability to it. Local leaders die, opposition is crushed, and the lucky flee. Brown’s love affair with a diplomat’s wife founders in the turmoil. The grand plans of Smith, Jones, and Brown all crumble against Pap Doc’s corrupt political and military might. Contrary to comedies of old, there is no happy ending, but The Comedians is a story of history on a human scale that will grip the reader’s attention to the very last page.


1966 New York Times review of The Comedians

If you would like your review of this or any other Graham Greene book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it. 


I read The Comedians for several challenges, most obviously the Graham Greene Reading Challenge hosted by the Carrie at Books and Movies, but also the Birth Year Reading Challenge on Hotchpot Cafe, the Books Published in the First years of My Life Challenge hosted by Emma at Words and Peace, the Mt. TBR Challenge on My Reader's Block, the Off the Shelf Challenge on Bookish Ardour, and the TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader.


  1. I wouldn't expect that story to have a happy ending. It does sound fascinating.

  2. You have reminded me that I want to read more Graham Greene. Thanks for this review.

  3. This was a story I wanted to like more than I actually liked it. Took it on a vacation last year and had trouble keeping my interest up, despite the setting. Thanks for the review, which reminds me I need to give Graham Greene another chance.

  4. Kathy: It was a satisfying ending, which can be just as good.

    Tracy: I reminded myself, too! I have another GG on my nightstand, waiting to go.

    AtCF&R: If this was your first GG, I can see how you may have had different expectations! But compared to others of his that I have read, this one was a lighthearted rip-roarer.

  5. I'm so glad you enjoyed your first Greene! His books are not usually funny or lighthearted, and some are down-right depressing. Although, I recently read Travels With My Aunt, and that one did have some very funny moments. Glad you're enjoying the challenge. :)

  6. Gosh, this sounds dark -- nothing funny about what happened in Haiti. What do you make of the bland American names (Brown, Smith, Jones . . . Greene)?

    (But you still got your BYRC candle!)

  7. Carrie: Thanks for hosting the GG challenge! This was my first book for your challenge, but not my first GG book by a long shot. He's a favorite of mine.

    Jane: There were funny bits, really, even though the subject matter was grim. Greene plays with the bland names throughout, talking about how they seem fake. In a way, each of the characters was fake in that they were all trying to create different lives in Haiti. I'm sure there's more to it . . .

  8. I would learn so much from this book. I've just added it to my TBR list.

    I can't imagine how I've missed Graham Greene all these years.


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