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Paul FarmerFebruary 06, 1993

Graham Greene's The Comedians is surely the most famous novel set in contemporary Haiti. The book, published in 1965, introduced the English-speaking world to the methods of governance of président-a-vie Francois Duvalier. Following the novel's publication, both Greene and his book were banned in Haiti. Papa Doc was furious with the expose, certainly, but he was also vexed by the ethnographic detail of the novel. Trained as an anthropologist, the dictator knew that careful observers like Greene are always more difficult to discredit. Duvalier did his best, however, going so far as to produce a glossy bilingual pamphlet, Graham Greene Demasque, which depicted the writer as "unbalanced, sadistic, perverted ... the shame of proud and noble England." Although Greene would later term this assessment "the greatest honor I've yet received," Duvalier was not joking. The Comedians, travelers to Haiti were warned, was a book that even the luggage-rifling thugs at the airport could recognize.

Papa Doc probably had the last laugh. He kept his promise to go "from palace to cemetery," and son Jean-Claude subsequently spent a full 15 years in the Big House. But Abraham, as the Bible-citing Haitians often say, finally cried "Enough!" Widespread revolt overtook the land late in 1985, after police shot and bayonetted three schoolboys in a scene even Greene would have had trouble depicting. Baby Doc fled to France in February 1986, settling ironically close to Greene's home in Antibes.

A few months after the fat and kleptomaniacal dictator was overthrown, the celluloid version of Greene's novel came to town. Working in a clinic in central Haiti, I resolved to travel to Port-au-Prince and see the film on the day it opened. I say day because there was, at the time, a curfew--I don't recall whether or not the curfew was declared, but the fact remained that bullets were whizzing around town, most of them fired by soldiers at civilians. And so it was no surprise but something of a disappointment to find the theater almost empty. A disappointment because Haitian audiences tend to make raucous commentary on whatever film is playing, but the only comment on that day was the sharp and distracting report of gunfire outside the theater.

I had long admired one of the book's characters. Dr. Magiot is the Haitian doctor who serves as a foil to the superficial and uncommitted blancs--the Creole term for foreigners--in The Comedians. Magiot is a committed Communist, which allows him to maintain a deep faith, if not in God, then at least in humanity. Watching the Hollywood version, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, I thought that the good doctor had faded into the background; even his philosophy had been somewhat diluted. As usual, the book was better than the movie.

That night, I reread the novel (hidden carefully since 1983, when I snuck it into the country in a manila envelope). Perhaps Magiot had not been as central a character as I had recalled, but again I enjoyed the superb economy of his remarks. With great dignity and few words, Dr. Magiot explained his country to the book's narrator, an Englishman who came to Haiti to take over his mother's hotel just prior to Papa Doc's ascent. For example, standing over the body of a messy suicide, a government minister who has apparently slit his own throat out of fear, Dr. Magiot observes: "Violent deaths are natural deaths here. He died of his environment."

The book's most stirring passage, to my second reading, is to be found in a letter written by the doctor shortly before he was dispatched by Duvalier's henchmen. The letter was addressed to Brown, the narrator. Dr. Magiot writes:

I have grown to dislike the word "Marxist." It is used so often to describe only a particular economic plan. I believe of course in that economic plan--in certain places and in certain times, here in Haiti, in Cuba, in Vietnam, in India. But Communism, my friend, is more than Marxism, just as Catholicism--remember I was born a Catholic too--is more than the Roman Curia. There is a mystique as well as a politique .... Catholics and Communists have committed great crimes, but at least they have not stood aside, like an established society, and been indifferent. I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate. . .. I implore you-a knock on the door may not allow me to finish this sentence, so take it as the last request of a dying man--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?

The question of faith and its links to utopian visions of a just society would recur in most of Greene's subsequent works, but these links, if presaged elsewhere, were first explicitly made in The Comedians. Indeed, Greene regarded this novel as his first properly political work.

This is a surprising claim, as Greene had by 1932 published Stamboul Train, in which an aging Socialist doctor is killed while trying to return to Belgrade to lead a revolt against Socialism betrayed. In The Power and the Glory (1940), a weak-willed, drunken Mexican priest is stalked by an atheist and nationalist soldier of Indian descent. In 1948, Greene published The Heart of the Matter, set in Sierra Leone, where he had been active during the World War II in British intelligence. It is a book in which the fecklessness of the (mostly English) whites is all too easily translated into life and death for the Africans. The Quiet American (1955) was fairly uncompromising in its condemnation of French and U.S. policies in Vietnam. Such sparing use of "political" is refreshing indeed in a world where the term is so often leached of its significance.

WHAT, THEN, is politically fresh in The Comedians? After all, many of Greene's previous books, such as A Burnt-out Case (1961), which takes place in a leprosarium in the Congo, had squalid and violent settings. The innovation lies, in part, in the treatment accorded the natives. In Greene's sketches of Africa, the Africans served invariably as backdrop, as local people of color. Dr. Magiot, by contrast, is the hero-designate of The Comedians, a man of weight and texture. The other characters (blancs) are the comedians, without real commitments except to themselves.

But perhaps the most significant change was Greene's nascent understanding of the politics of poverty in Latin America. In a setting such as Haiti, it is difficult to assert that the most pressing questions are the existential jitters of the (usually European) protagonists. In The Comedians the central characters, who with the exception of Dr. Magiot have no faith in any creed, all tend to connate their personal problems with issues of great moment. Faith of some sort--any sort--is presented as preferable to the post-modem anomie that allows the uncommitted characters to declare so boldly their lack of faith, their neutrality. It is in large part the characters' lack of commitment, as well as this conflation of the personal and the political, that leads the reader to see them as two-bit actors.

Dr. Magiot introduces the contrasting political and spiritual sensibility. In one scene, the physican is speaking courteously to a well-meaning American couple. Dogooders from Wisconsin, they are horrified to learn that the doctor is a Communist. "In the Western Hemisphere," explains Dr. Magiot, "in Haiti and elsewhere, we live under the shadow of your great and prosperous country. Much courage and patience is needed to keep one's head. I admire the Cubans, but I wish I could believe in their heads-and in their final victory." Greene, never much taken with socialism a la Russe, would nevertheless maintain a certain "hermeneutic of generosity" for people like Dr. Magiot, characters who in the face of great adversity could maintain some sort of faith in a just society. Such beliefs, Greene felt, resonated with his own faith. Again and again, in later works, Greene's characters would compare Catholicism and Communism. Both credos, at their elusive purest, are protests against injustice.

DR. MAGIOT'S observations came to mind in a stranger-than-fiction episode shortly after I saw the film and reread the book. I thought of him as I helped to extract a bullet from the forearm of a nine-year-old boy. The child had the misfortune to be sent by his mother on an errand that led him near a demonstration in Port-au-Prince. The soldiers, as they were and are still wont to do, opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. I had the misfortune to be standing in the dirty and ill-stocked emergency room of the capital's chief public hospital when the boy arrived. He was one of several children who came into the emergency room that day--one of the less unfortunate, in fact. Assisting a young Haitian doctor (whose first and middle names were "Franklin Delano"), I was lectured at great length: "Do you know where this bullet comes from?" he asked, brandishing the thing in a forceps. "It comes from the United States of America."

At that moment, the latter-day Magiot was interrupted by a camera flash at the door. Bernard Diederich walked into the dank, bloody room. "I'm a journalist for Time," he apologized, but I knew him as a great friend of Graham Greene's, a man who in some ways sculpted The Comedians by serving as Greene's guide on the Dominican border after they were both expelled from Haiti. Diederich later wrote a book about Papa Doc, to which Graham Greene added a preface. I thought it might be ludicrous to tell Diederich that I'd just been thinking of Dr. Magiot. Besides, I was relieved that it was the journalist's turn to take the spleen of the Haitian physician, who had little use, we soon learned, for Time magazine.

Imagined similarities between Dr. Franklin Delano and Greene's character soon faded: The young man spoke incessantly as he completed sewing up the child's rent skin. Magiot, a man whose "silence was as monumental as his conversation," was not one for desultory conversation.

In Magiot's house, Marx's Capital is "rebound in exactly the same calf so that at a distance it was indistinguishable from Les Miserables." Propped against these volumes is Renan's Vie de Jesus. It is not that these works, when mixed together and shaken under a ropical American sun, produce liberation theology.

What makes liberation theology is the reaction of the poor in the face of oppression, their "irruption." In Haiti Greene encountered an almost biblical poverty, replete with dust, braying asses and limbless paupers scrambling to get alms (and to avoid the kicks of Duvalier's police). But the writer did not witness the irruption of the Haitian poor. That was to come later.

In a sense, Greene was a precocious Catholic who anticipated, but could not (not from his desk in Antibes, in any case) elaborate, a theology that declared, with simple clarity, God's "preferential option for the poor." Greene traveled to where the poor lived and died, and his most compelling works are set there. When asked by a friend what drew him to Latin America, Greene responded, "In those countries politics have seldom meant a mere alteration between rival electoral parties but have been a matter of life and death." By the time he wrote about Haiti, Greene had become a progressive.

In his later years, he showed that he could be, in fact, downright partisan, expressing his views in numerous letters to British dailies and in trenchant essays that could not have sat well with many of his contemporaries. He traveled to Cuba, where he took on the received wisdom about Fidel Castro and about religious persecution there: "The enemies of the church in Cuba are not the Communist leaders," Greene wrote in the mid-1960s. 'They are Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Fulton Sheen, those doughty champions of cold war and counter-revolution, churchmen for whom Pope John XXIII seems to have lived in vain."

These themes were taken up again in numerous essays and letters, as well as in novels. The Honorary Consul (1973), set in Argentina, offered many readers a first glimpse of liberation theology. Monsignor Quixote (1982) is the story of a warm-hearted priest and his friend, a Communist ex-mayor, as they travel by car through the relatively benign ambiance of post-Franco Spain. The story of Greene's involvement in Central American politics is told in Getting to Know the General, a personal account of Greene's friendship with Gen. Omar Torrijos of Panama. Although Torrijos, a morally complex and somewhat erratic leader, could not have lived up to Greene's exacting standards, the general did become Greene's "tutor" in Central American history and politics. It was the general who introduced the writer to the liberation struggles going on in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Greene came to be friendly with many young Sandinistas before they came to power.

Graham Greene died in April 1991. In the last decade of his life, he witnessed many changes, most of them sad. His friend Torrijos was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1981. The Sandinistas were ousted from power after the Nicaraguans wearied of the costly war waged against them by Washington. And Haiti, unbelievably, became even poorer. But Greene noted with pleasure its becoming the stage, however briefly, on which the aspirations of the poor were most explicitly spelled out. On Dec. 16, 1990, in the only democratic elections the country has ever known, Haitians elected as their President a Roman Catholic priest. And thereby liberation theology, with which the young cleric was strongly identified, was elevated to the status of public policy.

"Aristide's inauguration represents immense hope, not only for the Haitian people, but also, I believe, for the people of the Dominican Republic and all the other peoples of Latin America. The beacon is no longer Nicaragua, it is now Haiti, and Haiti truly has the duty and the right to succeed on behalf of all people who desire this experience of liberation."

These words were uttered not by Greene, but by Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux, France. But they would have fit in the mouth of Greene. Graham Greene's fictional characters often locate themselves on the periphery of grand struggles--West versus East or non-West, colonialism versus independence movements, Communism versus Capitalism. But the writer himself was never comfortable with any of these totalizing frameworks. He came to be, rather, on the side of the poor and the oppressed, a sympathetic fellow traveler who understood their suffering and their hope.

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