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Walking the Interminable Flats

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Graham Greene was a master novelist. He created characters that were amazingly true-to-life, sketched from deep reservoirs of life experience. He assigned them bland, nondescriptive names, and stuck them in impossible situations and exotic locales.

The Comedians finds Mr. Brown the protagonist – if he can be called that – aboard a ship bound for Haiti. We never learn his first name, but we know that he is a drifter, a bit of a loner. He is a hotelier that has seen better days. He had the misfortune of inheriting a hotel in 1950’s Haiti, and as the narrative opens, is returning from an unsuccessful attempt to sell it off in New York City. The ship is filled with mysterious, eccentric characters who will all play greater and fuller roles in the plot that is about to unfold.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith – the idealistic Americans – are on their way to Haiti to start a vegetarian center. (They claim that the passions of man have been aroused by eating meat, and that a vegetarian diet would effect peace on earth.) Mr. Jones is a war hero with a fondness for braggadocio who is more than he seems to be. All are playing a part that was not originally theirs – hence the title, “The Comedians.”

Despite its good understanding of the Haitian culture and mindset, The Comedians is still a tourist at heart – thoroughly Western in its disillusioned monotone. It avoids lingering on the power or class struggles raging down the hill from Brown’s hotel in the center of the city, but instead focuses on the characters’ emotions, reactions, and insecurities – perhaps in a way giving muted voice to Greene’s own. Indeed, all of Graham’s proud, flawed characters are stunningly and utterly flawed, and they steal the reader’s captivation. All are selfish and manipulative, perhaps merely variations on the same theme. It is Brown – by far the strongest character – who sets the tone with his moody narrative, punctuated with infrequent jabs at U.S. foreign policy and the Duvalier establishment.

Brown’s selfishness eventually gets the best of him, and Greene closes the novel with a plot twist that introduces more questions than it answers. Even then, Brown’s thorough disenchantment comes through vividly. All have been comedians in some sort of divine script, jesters in the court of Providence. In typical British style, the plot has no effect on any overall scheme. Life continues as it was, unperturbed by the small ripple of events happening in the Caribbean. As Brown himself put it, ‘There were no heights and no abysses in my world – I saw myself on a great plain, walking and walking on the interminable flats.’

At least the scenery was nice.

John Adams lives in Haiti and maintains his own blog at www.themasterspen.com

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  • Eric Olsen

    Cool John, thanks and welcome

  • Thanks for having me.