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4.4 out of 5 stars
The Comedians
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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2006
I first read "The Comedians" around thirty years ago and then again around twenty years ago. Remembering how much I enjoyed and admired the novel I have just finished re-reading it and have now sadly closed the book.
It is an extremely satisfying novel written by one of the finest novelists of the 20th century.
The three main characters are the men, Brown, Smith (with the feisty Mrs. Smith) and Jones who meet as strangers on board the cargo-ship "Medea" bound from New York to Haiti where their paths cross and re-cross.
Brown, the main character, is a rootless hotelier with a shady past and without faith or hope.
Smith is a one-time American Presidential Candidate on an evangelic crusade to establish a vegetarian centre.
Jones is a mystery at first, a liar certainly, a con man perhaps, who falls in and out with the regime but eventually finds some redemption.
Set in the era of Papa Doc Duvalier's misrule with his sinister Tonton Macoute secret police the novel captures the atmosphere of a nation failed by it's corrupt leaders with a people living in fear and oppression.
But this story is not about Haiti, it is about failed romance, disillusionment, cynicism but with some hope and redemption (but not for all).
The introduction by Paul Theroux is a spoiler - he unravels and lays bare the plot and it is his opinion that this is "not one of Greenes best" and a "tepid novel" - whatever that means. I strongly advise readers to read Theroux's introduction AFTER the book and make their own minds up.
I believe this to be one of Greenes finest novels that even thirty years on from our first meeting was immensely pleasurable to read and one I highly recommend.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 19 December 2012
This harsh revelation of the "violence, injustice and torture" imposed on Haiti by the thuggish "Tontons Macoute" supporters of the sinister "Papa Doc" during the 1960s forms the background to a novel that is a mixture of tense thriller, sad love affair, and reflection on the meaning of life provided through the portrayal of a variety of characters. Sadly, this impoverished island escaped from Papa Doc's control only to suffer the ravages of AIDS in the 1970s.

Returning to the rundown hotel in Haiti which he cannot sell, Brown has to deal with the body of a dead government minister in his swimming pool. This must be concealed from his only two guests, an idealistic but naive American couple, the Smiths, who are resolved to transform Haiti with an ill-timed project to promote vegetarianism. Can Brown maintain his clandestine "semi-detached" affair with Martha, whom he resents having to share with her spoilt and all-too observant young son, while Brown is unsettled by the suspicion that Martha's ambassador husband knows about the relationship but appears to accept it. What has brought Captain Jones to Haiti - a congenital liar beneath his blustering charm?

Although Greene himself did not regard "The Comedians" as one of his best works, and he admitted his experience of Haiti was superficial, this book hooked me from the first few pages with his gift for storytelling, constructing a plot in which every incident and character counts, creating a strong sense of place and devising scenes which are by turns poignant, philosophical, menacing, exciting or hilarious - hence the idea that we are all to some extent playing the part of comedians.

The narrator Brown may be cold, cynical and self-centred, but his role as an outsider gives him the detachment to observe and analyse the people and situations he encounters. He may be forgiven a little bitterness since he has never known his father's identity, and his flamboyant mother abandoned him as a small boy in a Catholic boarding school where the monks could be relied upon not to throw him out when she failed to pay the fees.

For the first time, I have understood some of the Catholic angst which pervades so many of Greene's novels. Near the end, Brown refers to "the never quiet conscience injected into me without my knowledge, when I was too young to know, by the fathers of the Visitation." Brown seems to be the vehicle for Greene's introspection. "The rootless.... we are the faithless. We admire the dedicated....the Mr. Smiths for their courage and integrity......we find ourselves the only ones truly committed to the whole world of evil and good, to the wise and the foolish, to the indifferent and the mistaken. We have chosen nothing except to go on living."
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I bought this after watching an old repeat of Alan Whicker's documentary on Haiti. Whicker's World - Vol. 1 [DVD] He asked Papa Doc (the dictator of Haiti) what he thought of Greene's book as it casts an "honest" on-the-ground eye on the Tontons Macoute (who were notorious for wearing their black impenetrable shades) and his answer was characteristically evasive. I read the book in a day, it's a cracking page-turner. Mr Brown comes back to Haiti to inherit his estranged mother's hotel. It turns out she wasn't the woman he thought she was, she'd worked with the French resistance for instance. As the book unfolds, the apparent "blows-with-the-wind" Mr Brown is blown away as he mixes himself up in intrigue, hiding suicides, his affair with the diplomat's wife. All this set to the backdrop of fear, road blocks, and every day violence.
We also meet Mrs Smith, who's husband ran for vegetarianism against Truman in the elections, and to reflect her puffed up self-elated position: "Mrs Smith was dressed in a kind of old colonial nightgown and her hair done up in metal rollers which gave her an oddly cubist air".
The book opens with the main characters on a boat heading to Haiti, the way Greene establishes the main protagonists is spot on, each is introduced to us simply through Mr Brown's opinion of each, all to the lolling of the boat as they slowly approach the Island. The tense expectation of Papa Doc's regime looms as the boat docks into harbour.
Lots of humour in the book too, as is typical of Greene: "He seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter".
and something I can quite easily associate with (maybe too easily!):
"I flung myself into pleasure like a suicide on a pavement"
Go read it
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Graham Greene takes the figurative French sense of the word comédiens, meaning those who pretend, impersonate, bluff, and he sets his novel in Haiti in about 1960, just a few years into the 1957-1971 dictatorship of `Papa Doc' Duvalier. The action is driven by more than a few of those comédiens, ex-patriot and Haitian, with contrast provided by a trio of wholly upright characters; a Dutch sea captain and an American couple earnestly campaigning for vegetarianism. It is tempting to see the first person narrator, Brown, as Greene's alter ego, not least because in a foreword Greene refutes this on the grounds that he is not the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, the legitimacy of his birth is not in doubt, and he was not educated by Jesuits. That still leaves Brown's outlook on life and many characteristics that might have some relationship to Greene's. Jones, a complete charlatan whose mysteries are never fully unravelled, may have no prototype, or it may be that Greene once encountered such a person, or heard stories of one.

Duvalier, through his 'tonton macoute' militia, played a merciless game. Foreigners could be useful to him for a time, but when that time was up they were dispensed with almost as ruthlessly as Haitians. Jones presents himself as potentially very useful - arms supply is hinted at - but is found out and obliged to urgently seek the protection of the South American Ambassador and Brown. Besides being a good, fast-paced read, the novel has utility in painting-in the background to the traumatic Duvalier years and those that have followed. The poverty, illiteracy, ravaged landscape, and alternating exploitation and neglect of Haiti by former colonisers that continued right up to the time of the 2010 earthquake are well described.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 September 2014
All the world was a stage and all its people merely players for globe-trotting Mr Greene and he certainly labours the point here, with characters regularly asking each other 'what part are you in now?' and announcing 'we're all comedians' and so on and so forth. But it isn't my job to reprise the plot - ludicrous in places - or bang on about the joyless sex, Catholic angst, the Haitian setting, the clunking lectures on sixties Caribbean realpolitik, etc but to tell you why I've given it five stars. And the answer to that is the nail-biting tension GG generates as narrator Brown, the saintly Smiths and conman Jones act out their folly against a background of extreme terror and repression. The scenes with Tontons Macoute thug Captain Concasseur ('steamroller') are some of the sweatiest I've ever read and this man is still the stuff of waking nightmare in too many places - northern Iraq, for example. It ends with the narrator getting an appropriate job - after a bit more fun at the expense of the Americans - and the vision that most of our lives are stand-up routines, funny or not. PS Don't read Paul Theroux's intro before the novel; he 'spoils' the blinking lot!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 18 April 2010
Three men - Brown, Smith and Jones, find their fates intertwined on the deeply disturbed island of Haiti during Papa Doc's reign of terror. Brown is the chief character, through whom the book is narrated. He owns a faded hotel on the island that he inherited from his long lost mother, and has a long standing but unsatisfactory relationship with the German ambassador's wife. He is a much travelled, largely unsuccessful, but sympathetic character with a slightly dodgy past. The hotel, his girlfriend and Haiti are all he has. He shares some of the characteristics of Jones. Jones is a shadowy businessman, possibly a confidence trickster, or even a mercenary or spy; a man with a past, but one that changes constantly. Finally, Smith is a rich American, a crusading vegetarian who once stood for the US Presidency, and a man who likes to think the best of everyone. These three unlikely characters fully sustain a deep dark work, although one shot through with humour, about the human condition; a book that strips away the comedian's mask we all, to an extent, wear to reveal what lies beneath. A powerful work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 4 June 2010
What is so masterful is the way Greene imparts information. You never feel that the action has been put on hold while he rolls out the purple prose, yet the evocation of life in Haiti under Papa Doc is vivid and far-reaching. Most outstanding, though, is the way that little details or superficially insignificant actions suddenly illuminate some other detail that you have read several pages, or even several chapters, previously. These interconnections give the story a wonderfully dense texture, which reinforces the feeling of being trapped in something approaching a waking nightmare.

There is plenty of humour in this book, but also a kind of grimness, observed in a resigned way by the world-weary narrator. So don't expect the fun of Travels With My Aunt or Our Man In Havana, but do expect a novel of substance, and a memorable read.
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on 1 January 2011
One of the most fascinating books, set amid the mania of Papa Doc's regime, Greene offers a stunning insight into human nature. It is almost surreal, but what is more shocking is its basis on truth, the theft of a corpse by the Ton Ton Macoutes was based on fact, so were the settings. I found myself getting up at three in the morning to google that the Olaffson Hotel was still standing following the earthqake. The whirlwind that is Petit Pierre was based on a real life Haitian Journalist-cum-government snoop of the time.
The depictions of meddling American do-gooders was mischeivous, the well meaning white woman who when knocked on her backside by a Ton Ton thug, appraises that he was kinder than some white southerners at the civil rights clashes in a feeble attempt to cover her distress.
greene does sensationalize events?... Papa Doc himself, described Greene as a monster following the book's publication, complaining he was a discretit to the honourable English nation and a traitor of Haiti.
All very well the doc saying that, but when he was sitting dead bodies of his opponents outside the international airport, to greet new arrivals, its not hard to see why Papa was getting such a rubbish press.
Perhaps the most tragic insight of all is for a love lorn Haitian, Marcel who's love of an older European woman has tragic consequences that begin to shape one character's view of race and human nature.
While Papa Doc would argue the book is an attack on his country's values, I think in the end it is an attack on human hypocrisy, whether it is against how black people were percieved by some white people, or how the sadistic Ton Ton's became sharp suited darleks with no mind of their own, only for doing cruel deeds, and how all these people in the end were used and abused by one dictator to ensure his hand stayed on the tiller to the very end.
On Voudou I am looking to read Jacques Roumain's Masters of the Dew for a more indepth view of the religion following the reading of this book, as for the Ton Ton Macoutes, I would recommend The Dew Breaker as a readers insight into what became of Papa Doc's darleks following the Duvalier regime collapse.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 September 2013
As a regular visitor to Haiti I was somewhat remiss in not reading this famous Graham Greene novel earlier. But once I started it I could not put it down. I later attended a lecture by a close companion and traveling partner of Greene's, who provided a fascinating insight in to their journey along the Dominican Republic/Haiti border and which inspired Greene to write this book. Read it, and you won't be disappointed!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 16 November 2012
Written from the point of view of the self centered and unlikeable Mr Brown, somehow this book has a ring of truth about it. The reader is left wondering what Mr Graham Greene has been up to!
There is no real story line, no plot, but the events described (recorded?) are set in Haiti and read as if they really happened. It is Greene's entertaining writing style and understated humor that keeps the reader engaged.
At the same time the book has historical interest.
Perhaps many of us have forgotten, or never heard about the appalling events and dreadful suffering of the poor people of Haiti during the reign of the monstrous dictator, Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier.
Greene's description of the terrifying Tontons Macoutes leave the reader with a real feeling of the fear which pervaded the country from the late 1950's to the early 1970's
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