Saturday, January 23, 2010

Graham Greene's Haiti

By Pat Browning

Haiti. Where do you start to talk about Haiti?

I would start with THE COMEDIANS, a 1966 novel by Graham Greene that covers another tragic period in the history of that small piece of earth in the Caribbean.

Hollywood made the book into a movie in 1967, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. I don’t remember a single thing about the movie, but I have never forgotten the book. Graham Greene was an exceptional writer.

Stirring up memories of the book was an article in The Washington Post. The horrors taking place in Port-au-Prince are paraded past us daily, but nobody mentioned the wealthy, largely untouched mountain suburb of Petionville – until reporter William Booth came along to tell us that Haiti’s rich and powerful are still living the good life.

I wonder if Graham Greene would be aghast, or even surprised. The Jan.18 article can be read at

The Hotel Oloffson, setting for Greene’s political thriller, still stands. THE COMEDIANS takes place during the dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his thugs, the Tonton Macoute. The narrator is Mr. Brown, an Englishman who inherited the Hotel Oloffson from his aunt. Other central characters are The Presidential Candidate, a well-meaning American who ran for president in 1948 and comes to Haiti to set up a vegetarian center, and Mr. Jones, a gregarious con artist from Europe who finds redemption in an uprising against the corrupt government.

I’ve always like Greene’s opening lines:

“When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jones's home lay. At least he paid for the monument - however unwillingly - with his life, while the generals as a rule came home safe and paid, if at all, with the blood of their men, and as for the politicians - who cares for dead politicians sufficiently to remember with what issues they were identified? Free Trade is less interesting than an Ashanti War, though the London pigeons do not distinguish between the two. Exegi monumentum."

(I looked it up. Exegi monumentum means "I raised myself a monument.")

Some of today’s readers might find those lines slow and old-fashioned. To me, they set up a story that promises to blot out everything else for a few hours.

The Hotel Oloffson is not the only luxury hotel still standing after last week’s earthquake. The old Hotel Villa Creole has a crushed central structure, with beautiful paintings and carvings covered in dust, but it is open to paying customers. A hospital is set up at its entrance, and media from all over the world are based in the swimming pool.

Haiti’s history, briefly: Haiti’s native labor made France rich until a slave uprising at the turn of the 19th century. In 1804, Haiti declared its independence, but its native leaders turned out to be as cruel and corrupt as its former French masters. The country endured 33 coups. U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

Quoting from a story in The Week magazine, Jan 29 issue:

“The island has the misfortune, among others, to be located directly in a geological fault zone, making it susceptible to earthquakes, and its location in the Caribbean makes it a sitting duck for hurricanes. Environmental degradation and poverty, of course, only compound the problems. ‘If you want to put the worst-case scenario together in the Western Hemisphere for disasters,’ says Richard Olson of Florida International University, ‘it’s Haiti.’

You can read entire article -- “Haiti: A History of Hurt” -- at

Graham Greene’s Haiti has changed, but not nearly enough. As for writers, he offers the best answer I’ve found to the question: Where do you get your characters?

THE COMEDIAN is written in first person, from Mr. Brown’s viewpoint. In a letter to A.S. Frere, his former publisher, Greene wrote:

“ ‘I’ is not the only imaginary character: none of the others, from such minor players as the British charge to the principals, has ever existed. A physical trait taken 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.”

1 comment:

Mark W. Danielson said...

Nice to read such a positive spin on Haiti, Pat. Perhaps those images will help inspire people to render financial assistance to this devastated country. Donating is easy: on line, by phone, grocery stores. I'm glad they've made it so easy. Haiti's problems won't go away in a month, a year, or even five years. It's important we do all we can.