The Comedians is set in Haiti during the rule of the infamous dictator François Duvalier, known popularly as Papa Doc. Greene had spent some time in Haiti.
But in fact The Comedians, like most of Greene’s books, takes place in Greeneland. Greeneland is a land of defeat and pessimism.
The narrator, Mr Brown, is returning to Haiti on the S.S. Medea. Mr Brown, a man in his late fifties, does not think Haiti is a very good place to be but he has his reasons for returning. He owns a hotel in Haiti. It is the only thing he has ever owned. And there is a woman in Haiti, Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American Ambassador. Brown has been having an adulterous affair with Martha for several years. He doesn’t know if he’s in love with her but he has realised he cannot live without her.
Brown is amused that the very small group of passengers on the Medea includes a Mr Smith and a Mr Jones. They all sound like aliases and since his own claim to the name Brown is doubtful he can’t help suspecting that Mr Smith and Mr Jones might have equally dubious claims to their names. Mr Jones in fact claims to be Major Jones, with a distinguished war record in Burma. Brown is very sceptical.
Major Jones, like Brown, is a typical inhabitant of Greeneland. They both have murky pasts which include unfortunate misunderstandings with the police. They are both expatriates. Neither believes in anything very much. Both men have about them an air of defeat. Both have a certain disreputable charm. They are not bad men, but they’re not especially good either. Greene famously said that human nature is not black and white, but black and grey. Brown and Jones both fall into the grey category.
When the Medea arrives in the capital, Port-au-Prince, it soon becomes obvious to Brown that things are just as bad as they were when he had left a few months earlier. Duvalier is crazy and paranoid and never leaves the Presidential Palace. The economy is in ruins. The people are close to starvation. The tourists have long gone. The secret police, the Tontons Macoute, are continuing their reign of terror.
Graham Greene had been a real-life spy, working for MI6 where his supervisor was a chap named Kim Philby (Greene later wrote a foreword to Philby’s excellent autobiography My Silent War, a book I thoroughly recommend). The world of espionage and counter-espionage fascinated Greene and it plays a part in many of his novels. Spies live in a world of deception and, often, self-deception. Just like many of the inhabitants of Greeneland. The Comedians is not a spy novel as such (although the Tontons Macoute are a counter-espionage outfit) but it is concerned (among other things) with the shadowy worlds of international intrigue, diplomacy, gun-running and revolution.
Mr Smith is another very Greene character. He is an American and he is introduced as the Presidential Candidate. It turns out that he really had been a presidential candidate in 1948 but since he only gained 10,000 votes nation-wide he did not provide much competition for Harry Truman. Mr Smith and his wife are idealists. They believe that most of the world’s problems are caused by excessive acidity and that once people are converted to vegetarianism most of those problems will disappear. Mr and Mrs Smith are also liberals, and like so many American liberals they are entirely disconnected from reality. Like Alden Pyle in The Quiet American Mr and Mrs Smith are sincere idealists of the type that actually causes most of the world’s problems. And like Alden Pyle they do have the courage of their convictions.
The Comedians is partly of course a political novel although Greene’s political beliefs tended to be, like his religious beliefs, complex and contradictory. As in The Quiet American the U.S. does not appear in a favourable light in this novel. They know the horrifically brutal nature of Papa Doc’s regime but they’re prepared to prop him up as a “bulwark against communism” - as was the case with Vietnam their foreign policy was simplistic and deluded.
Mr and Mrs Smith intend to establish a vegetarian centre in Haiti. Brown tries to persuade them that their plan is going to land them in trouble. Major Jones has his own plans which Brown suspects (correctly) are not strictly legal and which he also suspects (correctly) are going to get him in a lot of trouble. Brown does not want trouble. He just wants his hotel and he wants Martha. He’s going to find trouble anyway. He knows that when he finds the body of the Secretary of Social Welfare in his hotel’s swimming pool.
Brown envies Mr Smith because Smith believes in something, even if it’s crazy and futile. He also envies Jones because Jones has a dream, even if the dream is a delusion and even if Jones himself knows it’s a delusion. Believing in something is good but in Greeneland things are not so simple. Believing in things can also destroy a person, and destroy other people as well.
Faith can be destructive, especially when it’s combined with innocence (and innocence terrified Greene). Brown’s friend Dr Magiot and Henri Phillipot, son of the deceased Secretary of Social Welfare, are inclined to put their faith in revolution. Which can be just as dangerous and futile as Mr Smith’s faith in vegetarianism.
The Comedians is not one of Greene’s more highly regarded books. Perhaps it’s not quite top-tier Greene but even second-tier Greene is better than almost everything published in the past fifty years. Highly recommended.
Greene wrote the screenplay for the 1967 movie adaptation.