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
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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.