Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 14

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Wk 7 - Thurs (18/9), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

Graham Greene: The Comedians (1966) -

Theme & Symbolism

"If there are recurrent themes in my novels it is perhaps
only because there have been recurrent themes in my life.
Failure seemed then to be one of them."

- Graham Greene, A Sort of Life, 1971 (Penguin, 1974) 154.

The Other

For once, let's take an author at his word.

One theme easy to detect in Graham Greene's life and work (as Sean pointed out last week) is the Double.

In fact, the epilogue to the second volume of his autobiography, Ways of Escape (1980), entitled "The Other," explores this idea at length.

This "other" who goes around impersonating Graham Greene is:

  • of indeterminate age
  • financially insolvent
  • of dubious morals (sexual and otherwise)

Having been psychoanalysed while still in his teens (as described in the first volume of autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), there's little possibility that he would introduce such an idea naively or unknowingly: "For years, after my analysis, I could take no interest in any visual thing: staring at a sight that others assured me was beautiful I felt nothing. I was fixed, like a negative in a chemical bath." (93)

Note that highly-charged image - "a negative in a chemical bath."

More Binaries:

  • Belief & Unbelief
  • Saints & Sinners
  • Tarts & Toffs
  • Catholicism & Voodoo
  • Lovers & Zombies

Coming to The Comedians, 1966 (London: Readers' Book Club, 1967), then, we observe that the character Brown has a good deal in common with his creator Green(e). So much so that he explicitly disavows any resemblance in the preface to the novel - "I want to make it clear that the narrator of this tale, though his name is Brown, is not Greene." (5) He goes on to talk about this misapprehension as one of the inevitable perils of first-person narration.

More to the point, then, Brown sees in Jones a kind of double. Both are names of convenience. Jones asks very early on, in fact, after outlining his own "double" theory of humanity: "you aren't a tart by any chance pretending to be a toff?" (23)

If Jones is the id to Brown's self-conscious ego (to return to psychoanalytic terminology), Smith clearly functions as his conscience or super-ego.

Brown's love affair with Martha is echoed by the Smiths harmonious and mutually-supportive marriage. On the other hand, he is jealous of Jones's instant intimacy with the whole Pineda family. They like him because he makes them laugh - a spontaneity unattainable by the perpetually self-questioning Brown.

If I were to choose an epigraph for all the novels I have written, it would be from [Robert Browning's] Bishop Blougram's Apology:
'Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer,
The superstitious atheist ...
We watch while these in equilibrium keep
The giddy line midway.

- Greene, A Sort of Life, 85.

In terms of reading the book, though, character doubles will only take us part of the way. We have to examine its setting, also.

I couldn't help smiling when I thought of all the readers who have asked me why I sometimes write thrillers, as though a writer chooses his subject instead of the subject choosing him. Our whole planet since the war has swung into the fog-belt of melodrama, and, perhaps, if one doesn't ask questions, one can escape the knowledge of the route we are on. (170-71)

- Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, 1980 (Penguin, 1981) 170-71.

One of the great strengths of Greene as a writer is his choice of subject matter - and the fact that he was able to change and adapt in the second half of his career not only to the banal realities of Cold War politics, but also to the immense human issues brought up by the end of European colonialism and the establishment of a postcolonial consciousness.

Gary Brecher, The War Nerd: "The Big Hate" (19/2/04).

In a way, the only sad thing about Haiti is the way we keep trying to make it into Ohio. Because it never will be, and only looks ridiculous trying, giving the local killers fancy democratic names. If we just let Haiti be Haiti - a crazy, gory voodoo kingdom - people might learn to respect the place. I have, after reading up on it. Haiti's history isn't just a lot of killing, either. A lot of Haitian leaders were brilliant guys who weren't afraid of anybody - not Napoleon, not Jesus, not nobody. These guys were self-made black Roman Emperors. They came up the hard way, out of slavery in the cane fields, and beat the European armies that tried to take the place back. All comers -French, British, Spanish - the Haitians took them all on and put the fear into them. The only people they can't beat is themselves, and that's nothing for soldiers to be ashamed of.

Gary Brecher, The War Nerd: "Haiti 2: The Rerun" (4/3/04).

... After the Marines left in 1934, the Army was about the only thing that was still running properly.

From 1934 to 1957, Haiti was even more messy than usual. It was "Coups R Us," with more name changes than the Golden State Warriors coaching staff. And about as much success, too.

A humble, smiling little black country doctor, Francois Duvalier, was the one man who figured out a way to bring the whole country under his control.

Problem #1 was the Army, because it could and did overthrow any President who got uppity. Problem #2 was bonding with the big "black" population who didn't know or care who was running the cities. Duvalier started by courting the black peasants. He talked a lot of "black and proud" stuff and got officially interested in Voodoo, which made the peasants feel like he was a homeboy and also scared the Hell out of them, since Duvalier let it be known that he was in touch with some very scary spirits.

Then he took on the Army. They'd put him in charge; now he wanted to make sure they could never take him out. He announced he was President-for-Life, but that didn't impress anybody. He was the eighth Haitian to claim that title. It meant about as much as a Don King title bout.

Duvalier wasn't just woofing, though. He took two classic power-consolidating steps -- so any of you wannabe-dictators out there, get your Palm Pilots out and take notes. First, he set up a Presidential Guard, separate from the Army and packed it with his own men. Second, he started a second armed force, a counterweight to the army. Think Saddam's Republican Guard, Khomeini's Islamic Revolutionary Guard/Pasdaran, or Maoist Red Guard.

Duvalier's group was just as ruthless as any, but a lot more colorful, no pun intended. He'd done his homework in Haitian voodoo stories, and he organized a gang he called the "Tontons Makouts," which means "bogeyman." The Makouts fanned out through the cane fields, became something between a protection racket, a voodoo cult, and a Duvalier private army. They were the coolest, scariest thing to hit rural Haiti since...since ever. I mean, there weren't too many exciting career options out there: cut cane all day in the heat, come home to a one-room shed, catch a simple cold and die for lack of medicine. You can see why getting to be a voodoo disciple/ninja assassin kind of had appeal.

The Makouts kept the countryside terrified, and the Presidential guard rode herd on Port-au-Prince. And "Papa Doc" ruled over all of it, smiling for the cameras and killing anybody who even looked cross-eyed at him. He did away with at least 30,000 people -- and the peasants still loved him.

They gave him the ultimate compliment any dictator can get: he died in power. And the system he'd set up was so strong that even his idiot fat son, Jean-Claude, managed to survive in power for 15 years. He'd've died in office too, but he was so stupid he married a snotty mulatto girl the peasants hated, then spent $3 million on the wedding while sugar prices were falling through the dirt floor.

In 1986, it finally boiled over. A rising started, in...guess which city? Right: Gonaives. It spread south, right on cue. The Americans urged the President to leave...He fled the country...and a new regime came in, proud as punch, promising to "rid Haiti of corruption."

See what I mean? You don't need to write a new Haiti news story. Just take the old ones and change the dates.

When people asked the German novelist Gunter Grass in the 1980s why he chose to live in ruined Berlin, he replied that it was the place closest to the "realities of the age." This was before the fall of the war and the re-unification of Germany in 1989, mind you. I don't know if he still lives there now.

Greene's choice of settings such as Haiti, Vietnam, Cuba and Paraguay for his post-war fictions was clearly suggested by similar motives, though he attributes it mainly to the need to escape "boredom."

There he felt closest to the reality of his (and, I'm afraid) our time. Would that this were a common attitude among writers. It isn't, though, so it would be wrong to suggest that our interest in Graham Greene can be a purely historical one. I would suggest that he has important things to tell us about those errors of the past which got us into the mess we're in now.

That's one reason people still kept on reading his 1955 novel The Quiet American as a clue to what went wrong in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn't so much that Greene was uncommonly prescient as that he was there on the ground with his eyes and ears open. That novel, like The Comedians, is mainly centred around the complexities of a love triangle (a very frequent situation in Greene's own life), but the backdrop - in that case - came to overshadow the foreground.

I'm not sure he wanted the same thing to happen with The Comedians. There are a number of questions which any reading of the book has to try and answer:

  • What's the significance of the title and epigraph?
  • Why does the book begin on board ship, and continue there for so long?
  • Why does it end as it does, so anticlimactically?
  • Why does the film, scripted by Greene himself, end so differently?

We'll start off next week's lecture with a discussion of these.

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