Knowing a true classic when you read it

This is my review of The Comedians by Graham Greene.

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."

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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