§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Comedians by Graham Greene

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Comedians by Graham Greene

It’s been years since I’ve read a Graham Greene novel and I’d forgotten how much I like the fine moral distinctions that Greene draws. The story is about 3 men named Smith, Jones and Brown. It’s narrated by Brown who was born in Monaco of an English father (so his mother tells him but he never knew a father and suspected that he wasn’t actuality named Brown, maybe wasn’t even English) and a French mother. He was educated by the Jesuits in Monte Carlo—they wanted him to become a priest—and left after being initiated into sexuality by a older woman he met in a casino.

On a ship bound for Port au Prince, Brown meets Jones (a supposed war hero and soldier of fortune—of sorts) who has a similar background, who’s also made his way in the world, like Brown, not completely honestly, and Smith, an American who ran for President in 1948 for a vegetarian party. Brown is going back to run his hotel and take up again with Martha, the wife of a South American ambassador and daughter of a German official hanged by the Americans after the war. Jones has a letter of introduction to some official and some hush-hush scheme up his sleeve (which Brown, who knows Haiti under Papa Doc’s regime, assumes is dangerous in the extreme). Smith and his wife want to set up a vegetarian centre (because vegetarians are less aggressive and less warlike and can reform governments) and have an introduction to a minister whom Brown finds dead in his swimming pool on the first night. Three misfits in one of the world’s darkest capitals. And a Haitian, Dr. Magiot, whom Brown calls to help him deal with the body in the pool, a committed Communist (in an era when Papa Doc kept the Americans happy with his anti-Communist stance).

The distinction Brown draws is between those who are truly committed, like Dr. Magiot, and those with shallow beliefs or who have opted out, like Brown—the comedians. “I had forgotten how to be involved in anything. Somehow, somewhere I had lost completely the capacity to be concerned,” says Brown. Smith, who is initially committed to his vegetarian message, gives up on Haiti and, like any other salesman, moves on to the next potential customer. Jones, sought after as a military expert when in fact he fabricated all his heroism in Burma, does something like commit to a Haitian rebellion in the end—and dies without heroism or even gain, in the end.

It being a Graham Greene novel, the Catholic Church of course plays a role. Remember Brown was educated by Jesuits (whom his mother stiffed for the fees, but then they hoped to get a priest out of it). At the end of the novel, having read a letter from Dr. Magiot received after his death, Brown muses on his own detachment from life, “When I was a boy the fathers of the Visitation had told me that one test of a belief was this: that a man was ready to die for it. So Dr. Magiot thought too, but for what belief did Jones die?” In a dream he asks Jones why he is dying and Jones answers, “It’s in my part, old man, it’s in my part. But I’ve got this comic line—you should hear the whole theatre laugh when I say it. The ladies in particular.” But when Brown asks about the line, Jones can’t remember.


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