The Comedians by Graham Greene

I stole this book from the Peace Corps headquarters in Azerbaijan.

But who hasn’t? I recently made another trip overseas to see Kiersten, and one day we stopped by the PC headquarters in Baku. While its provisions are by no means extravagant, the HQ keeps a supply of donated clothing, equipment, and of course, books, for the volunteers take as they please. I’m not a volunteer, but when I see a Graham Greene novel on a shelf, my psychological condition compels me to grab it and attempt to justify to all witnesses my keeping it.

The fedora roof was a little-known hallmark of postmodernist architecture.

“Just take it,” said a nearby volunteer.

“Really?” I said. “But this stuff is for you guys. I’m not supposed to–”

“Please. Just take it.”

I like to think her insistence was based on the idea they have too many books already, and not a loathing for Greene. Either way, it’s mine, and it accompanied me on a sad plane trip back home.

In case you’ve never read Greene, he was one of the premier espionage novel writers of the 20th century. He had the uncanny knack for being in a country just before it would erupt in a civil war or revolution (granted, this was the 50s and 60s, so it was hard not to be in one). Perhaps the most famous example of these is The Quiet American, a prophetic indictment of American involvement in Vietnam.

The Comedians is drawn from his experience in Haiti during “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign of terror. The main character, who identifies himself as “Brown,” is an ex-pat who owns a hotel that stands empty (an everpresent, machete-wielding secret police isn’t conducive to a country’s tourism). He has been ruined by the Papa Doc regime but seems resigned to accept its atrocities as a bystander. But two other parties come to Haiti: The Smiths, American progressives who aspire to promote vegetarianism foreign countries, and “Major” Jones. Jones is an shady but affable chap who uses oddly archaic British terms and is doubtful to have ever been a Major at all. When Brown presses Jones for the reason he’s in Haiti, Jones coyly insists it’s for business.

Jones may be a grifter, a spy, or something similar, but whatever it is he’s terrible at it. “The Major” runs afoul of the dictator, and Brown reluctantly comes to his aid. This eventually threatens Brown’s relationship with his mistress–something he’s far more protective of than his decaying hotel and will go to desperate ends to preserve.

The Greene Plot Machine

Another arrogant, unhappy adulterer who is in a position to have his likable friend/rival killed. The Comedians is formula Graham Greene: this is The Quiet American, Haiti Edition. A bad book? No. But a duplicated plot cheapens both novels for me.

Also reappearing is Greene’s attack on US Cold War foreign policy, particularly America’s regrettable tradition of propping up tyrants based on their promise to kill Communists (and they never stopped at just Communists). He can be depended upon to refrain from preachiness, though, in his political message. He lets the heinousness of the Tonton Macoutes secret police speak for itself, and many of the incidents described in The Comedians are ones he’d actually witnessed–including the police interrupting a dissenter’s funeral to hijack the body.

If you’ve read The Quiet American, this is skippable, but the Haitian history is worth knowing. You might honestly choose to read one novel or the other based on the nation of interest. The Comedians an historically significant work, though, and was personally condemned by Papa Doc Duvalier, himself. But screw him. It’s chilling to read this knowing that Haiti’s tragedies would not cease even with the death of the dictator; his similarly vicious son would rule until 1986, and the 2010 earthquake would kill hundreds of thousands. (I found a Post-It in the back of my copy addressed to a Peace Corps volunteer from a fellow PCV recommending this book based on its perceived timeliness)

Reading this, though, I’m reminded that I want a Graham Greene for this era. Who is he/she, and where is this writer right now, blending morally complicated literary fiction with urgent foreign journalism?

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The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

This one's got slap-happy good-times written all over it.

 

Graham Greene is like an acquaintance I keep meaning to spend more time with, but we never get around to it. And whenever we run into each other, there’s some awkwardness involved.

GRAHAM: Hey, Doug, what’s up? I haven’t seen you since what, The Power and the Glory?

ME: I know, dude! That was like a year ago. But that was awesome–fun stuff. We should totally hang out again.

GRAHAM: Yeah, definitely, definitely. So-o-o, what have you been up to?

ME: Oh, man! Really busy! Working a lot, you know, new job and everything.

GRAHAM: I know how that is, don’t worry. Hey, I saw you read that Highsmith novel. I blurbed that one, you know.

ME: Right, I saw that! I was totally going to give you a buzz or something, see how you were doing.

Discovered among Kiersten’s half of the library was The End of the Affair, a wellworn paperback with “Library Book Sale” stamped on its flank. She hadn’t read it. Something feels subversive about finding a book of hers that she hasn’t cracked open yet and enjoying it to freaking pieces.

Maurice Bendrix is a semi-successful novelist meeting up again with Henry, the man he cuckolded. His tryst with the Henry’s wife began when he was researching Henry in order to write a civil servant protagonist. He and Sarah fell in love, but eventually she ended the relationship without explanation. Now he finds Henry (still in the dark about the affair) clearly perturbed. Henry reveals his wife may be seeing another man. Not only that, but Henry has also set up an appointment with a private investigation agency to look into it. He is reluctant to follow through on his jealousy and go meet the detective.

Bendrix, secretly as invested in Sarah’s doings as her husband is, says, “Why not let me go?”

So he hires the overly professional Parkis (easily my favorite character) to follow Sarah. Meanwhile Bendrix is meeting with her again, unable to determine whether he means her well or ill. Eventually Parkis delivers her diary to him– with all its illumination on their past.

So we have a classic case of unreliable narrator with a female character’s perspective being supplied later to turn the whole story on its head (an effect that’s almost a bonafide literary convention in itself). Sarah’s reason for ending things with Bendrix comes as a complete surprise, and with that the theological conflict in this book begins to take shape. Surely enough, an intriguing love-triangle story (which flirts with melodrama and self-indulgence) ascends a couple planes and becomes a principle-bending morality tale, with the characters assigning God all sorts of crazy roles in their relationship. And this is a book that started out with atheists.

Here’s an example of the shit we’re dealing with. Bendrix blames Sarah’s belief in God for tearing her away from him, then he blames the Almighty Himself. He struggles with hating God while still believing He doesn’t exist.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that what one is ashamed of usually makes for a good story. No surprise, then, that The End of the Affair is somewhat autobiographical. It’s honest.

This book is heartwrenching in all the conventional ways I like to think don’t work on me. Startling revelations, death, a love that cannot be, etc. The truth is, The End of the Affair so successfully penetrates a cynical soul that, well… I ought not to read too many of these too often. In fact, if this reading took place years ago, due to my resonant personal circumstances this book would have nuked me.