Book Review: The Comedians

The Comedians, by Graham Greene

Spoiler alert:  it’s not very funny.  This book carries on the Graham Greene tradition [1] of writing “entertainments” that are not very entertaining.  This is clearly a work of late Greene writing, and if one is familiar with Greene’s writing as a whole, there is a lot about this novel that has some marked similarities with his other writings.  His main character is a bachelor childless Catholic with a deep personal involvement in adultery and a highly cynical view about politics as well as family.  The author is, moreover, so lazy about naming his characters at this point that the titular characters are called Brown, Smith, and Jones because creativity wasn’t high on the author’s agenda.  Moreover, the irony of having a not very funny novel called the Comedians where few of the characters are having any fun at all and only Jones seems to be able to make other people laugh gets more than a little bit sour after a while.  If this is your first or second book by the author it is probably enjoyable enough, but if it’s your tenth it is, sadly, considerably less so.

The plot and setting of this nearly 300 page novel are pretty familiar for avid readers of Greene.  A group of seemingly mismatched passengers find themselves on a slow boat to Haiti–a British hotelier of ambiguous parentage who is engaged in an adulterous affair with the German-born wife of a South American diplomat, an unsuccessful American politician who campaigned for president of the United States in 1948 under the banner of world peace and vegetarianism and his wife, going to Haiti for who knows what reasons, and a mysterious drifter named Jones who runs into immediate trouble upon arriving in Haiti because he is too shady to ignore.  The characters pursue their private goals in Papa Doc-era Haiti while trying to avoid getting killed or beat up too badly, and most of the characters survive to the book’s anticlimactic ending, so long as they are not Haitians, as most of them die in rather brutal and sometimes harrowing ways through the course of the novel.  The author’s protestations to not be very much like the protagonist appear to be protesting a bit too strongly, which is unfortunate because there would be much to enjoy in this novel if it had been less tiresome.

Indeed, the author appears to be trying to use this novel to make a big point, namely that many people live their lives trying to wall themselves off from intimacy and unpleasant truths, and that perhaps not surprisingly these people end up being either politicians (like Mr. Smith), or lonely drifters of one kind or another (Mr. Brown or Mr. Jones).  Being afraid to live and afraid to love does not make for a life that is very much fun, and peopling a novel with such people does not make for one that is very enjoyable to read either.  One wonders if Greene had lived a life like that he writes about here, even if the details of the characters’ lives are certainly fabricated.  Unfortunately, while this book does provide plenty of insights about how terrible it is to live in a third-world dictatorship, the author is largely going through the motions exhibiting his reflexive anti-Americanism, his snobbery, and his lapsed Catholicity for the umpteenth time, and that makes this novel seem pretty tired.  When one goes to the same well over and over again or bathes in the same bathwater repeatedly, one cannot help but expect diminished results each time.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/24/book-review-the-tenth-man/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/24/book-review-no-mans-land/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/23/book-review-the-captain-and-the-enemy/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/23/book-review-our-man-in-havana/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/20/book-review-the-third-man-and-the-fallen-idol/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/07/19/book-review-the-last-word-and-other-stories/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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