My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my first Graham Greene book – not by choice but by virtue of the book having sat on my shelf for many, many years. I’d never heard of it before, unlike greater classics such as ‘Our Man in Havana’, ‘Brighton Rock’, ‘The Honorary Consul’ and, of course, ‘The Third Man’. Oddly, that last is the only Greene film I’ve watched and that, back when I was a young teenager. Such is the perversity of my life.
The question (I’m sure is burning on your lips) is will I go on to read these better-known novels after my experience with ‘The Comedians’? The answer is: probably.
As I repeatedly avow, the quality of a good novel is determined by how much I care about the characters after the story has finished. Greene’s book is the first (in a long while, at least) to challenge this. I don’t care about any of the characters; they all seem immensely selfish and pre-occupied with themselves. It is the bored elites trying to entertain themselves and getting into all sorts of (mostly mild) trouble. I couldn’t give a damn about any of them, least of all the narrator, appropriately called ‘Mr Brown’ and who is insipid as he sounds. He spends his time sitting in his deserted hotel as if just being there will somehow bring tourists back, or continuing his affair with a woman who seems as bored of him as she is of life. It’s a little pathetic.
And yet, there’s something about the writing which just appeals. In part it may be the tension of the setting – Haiti during the period of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier – and the sense of very real danger and menace ever present. Greene manages to convey at least a sense of what it would have felt like. The realism is gripping. Likewise, the writing is thoughtful. I may have no great interest in the welfare of Brown, but I appreciated his thoughts, his observations, his calm and his intelligence. Different circumstances, different times, he could be me.
It is a shame, with a post-modernist eye, that there is nothing about the people of Haiti at all. This could be Americans or Europeans playing footsie in any hotel in Europe. There’s almost nothing, outside of the dreaded Tonton Macoutes ever threatening, of the people of Haiti. I came away knowing much more about the politics of the era and nothing of worth of the country.
But then, that’s not Greene’s beef. He’s not interested in ‘the people’; he’s interested in the darkness of society and the depths of the human condition. His is the world of shadows, blurred morality, flawed people. A kind of prototype for a thinking reader’s James Bond. He manages it without being utterly depressing and avoids nice neat endings.
Unfortunately, I grew up in the tail end of the era of such books as these. It seemed no drama on BBC would allow the ‘good guy’ (who barely was ‘good’ in any sense of the word) to get a happy ending. To have not ended up worse than when he started was as hopeful as it got. This was the era of Le Carré’s writings and the like. I never found such stories very satisfying at the time – probably because I was a young man full of black-and-white optimism about the inherent goodness of the world. Now, not so much, and Greene’s writing at least rings true. There’s an unmistakable authenticity. An Englishman’s Hemingway perhaps?
So perhaps it is good that I have taken until now to read Greene’s work. I think you need to be a little world weary to appreciate what he is saying. Certainly, I couldn’t have liked this novel as much even fifteen years ago. Definitely not twenty.
The title intrigued me when I started the book. Even after reaching the part where the concept of the main characters as ‘comedians’ on life’s stage, I didn’t quite feel the point. It isn’t until the end, when we know all we want to know about ‘Jones’, the questionable possible charlatan who befriends Brown, that it becomes apparent just how absurd all these players are and how, in their own sad way, they are all comical actors playing a part which may not, in the end, be of their own choosing. It took me a while, but eventually I could see it.
And so, yes, I probably will pick up another Graham Greene eventually (there’s twenty-four more to choose from apparently…he was quite prolific). Whether or not I will do so soon is another matter. While I didn’t find ‘The Comedians’ depressing, I’m not sure a diet of ‘Greenes’ would suit my constitution. But the occasional dive into a very British darkness of the soul will be quite alright at some point in the future.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 2.2 million times.