Madeleine Thien has, bravely I think, chosen to write about a particular evil reality. Through Janie she unveils a dreadful truth.
"I flung myself into pleasure like a suicide on to a pavement" -- Graham Greene
Reading Graham Greene takes me back to the pre-feminist past. There were women writing in the 1960s, too, of course, but they weren’t the focus of a great deal of attention. The main character of The Comedians (1965), a character named Brown whose first name we never learn, had a secretary at one time in his life whom he refers to as a “lady-novelist” (56).
Brown is a rootless man who grew up in Monte Carlo and never knew his father. In the present of the novel, he has abandoned the hotel his mother left him, and is working with an undertaker in Santo Domingo, looking back on his life in Haiti before and then during the time of François Duvalier and the Tontons Macoute.
Brown and Greene have more in common than Greene wants to allow.
"Many readers assume – I know it from experience – that an “I” is always the author. So in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said, Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene." (ix)
This leads Greene to protest just a bit too much that Brown is not Greene:
"It is often forgotten that, even in the case of a novel laid in England, the story, when it contains more than ten characters, would lack verisimilitude if at least one of them were not a Catholic. Ignorance of this fact of social statistics sometimes gives the English novel a provincial air." (ix)
What follows, though, is as good a defence of the imagination in creating fictional characters as I have seen:
“I” is not the only imaginary character: none of the others, from such minor players as the British chargé to the principals, has ever existed. A physical trait take here, a habit of speech, an anecdote – they are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases. (x)
Catholicism is not the only characteristic common to Brown and Greene. Both are attractive to women. Brown is strong and silent, cynical and sceptical, a man we want to like better than we would normally like a man with no apparent goal other than the desire to make money. What redeems him most is a capacity for bravery when the circumstances demand it. The Comedians begins with a comment on the monument that “commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home…. Whenever my rather bizarre business take me north to Monte Cristi and I pass the stone, I feel a certain pride that my action helped to raise it.”
Brown’s otherwise feckless existence is also redeemed in part by a willingness to admire men greater than he, and by his awareness of some of his own limitations. This is a man who allows us to know how great a woman his mother was, even though he himself scarcely believes in her accomplishments.
Both Brown and Greene are readers of novels, as well, which is not something we might otherwise expect of Brown, whom we want to like more than a man with a single-minded interest in money deserves. It would be reassuring, and not implausible, to learn he is a writer, but Greene wants none of that.
The Comedians is infused by a certain kind of male world-weariness that smells to me like the dust of decades past. This is the kind of man that young men of my generation and perhaps a younger generation must have wanted to be, especially young men who wanted to write. “At that period of my life,” Brown says of his return to Haiti, “I still regarded my future seriously—even the future of my empty hotel and of a love-affair which was almost as empty.” I would have wanted to be like him, too, except that I couldn’t even begin to hope to be like Graham Greene. I wasn’t a man.
At the end, Brown gets a letter from Dr. Magiot imploring him “if you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?” Brown, who admires the good doctor, remembers his lover Martha telling him, “You are a prêtre manqué” :
"How strangely one must appear to other people. I had left involvement behind me, I was certain, in the College of the Visitation: I had dropped it like the roulette-token in the offertory. I had felt myself not merely incapable of love – many are incapable of love – but even of guilt. There were no heights and no abysses in my world—I saw myself on a great plain, walking and walking on the interminable flats. Once I might have taken a different direction, but it was too late now” (275).
Greene’s strengths are the strengths of a great and thoughtful writer with an overdose of unhappiness and a spectacular sense of how to tell a tale. Surely John Le Carré read Graham Greene. Surely Michael Ondaatje has read The Comedians. His account of the closed life on board the Oronsay in The Cat’s Table owes something to Greene’s account of life on board the much smaller cargo ship Medea, a cargo-ship of the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company, bound for Haiti from Philadelphia and New York. The distinctions drawn between those at the Captain’s table and those at “the Cat’s table” is not far from the distinction Major Jones draws between the “toffs” and the “tarts.”
If the casual racism of the novel -- “the Tontons Macoute in the car stared back at me as expressionless as golliwogs” (117) is a sign of its time – it is countered by the novel’s evident respect for Dr. Magiot especially, who “was used to being doubted by white people” (61) and who causes Brown to feel “ashamed at the thought that I had suggested to a man of his quality a second opinion” (61). The novel’s sexism is also a sign of its time, and not only in its attitude towards “lady novelists”: “scientists and women were of little use to me: scientists know too much, and few housewives love to gamble without the sight of ready cash that Bingo provides” (57).
Magiot is a great character, as is Brown’s mother, of whom we see too little. There is gorgeous writing on Brown’s very first love affair, as a student at the Jesuit College of the Visitation in Monte Carlo, when he is unresponsive until a seagull flies into the room:
"The bird came to rest on a chest below a gold-framed looking-glass and stood there regarding us on its long stilt-like legs. It seemed as completely at home in the room as a cat and at any moment I expected it to begin to clean its plumage. My new friend trembled a little with her fear, and suddenly I found myself as firm as a man, and I took her with such ease and confident it was as though we had been lovers for a long time. Neither of us during those minutes saw the seagull go, although I shall always think that I felt the current of its wings on my back as the bird sailed out again towards the port and the bay… That was all there was, the victory in the Casino and in the white and gold room a few further triumphant minutes – the only love-affair I have ever had which ended without pain or regret." (55)
Love brings out some of Greene’s strongest writing, as does despair. Brown’s response to hearing from Martha that, “Perhaps you are a prêtre manqué ” is:
“Me? You are laughing at me. Put your hand here. This has no theology.” I mocked myself while I made love. I flung myself into pleasure like a suicide on to a pavement.” (215)
The novel recreates Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haiti persuasively, and the novel is a page-turner well worth reading by men and women interested in writing fiction that is both good and popular. It even includes occasional, welcome forays into comedy, as in this scene between Madame Philipot -- the widow of a man murdered by the Tontons Macoute -- and a well-intentioned American named Mr. Smith:
"Madame Philipot shouted 'Salaud ' at the driver and 'Cochon,' then she flung her eyes like dark flowers at Mr. Smith. She had understood English. 'Vous êtes américain?”
Mr. Smith, expanding his knowledge of French nearly to its outer limit, said, 'Oui.'” (112).
© Linda Leith 2012