I picked up The Comedians when it was on sale at Audible because it was by Graham Greene and I really liked The End of the Affair. I started reading it because Shusaku Endo was frequently compared to Graham Greene (and Greene’s endorsement of Silence is one of the more famous endorsement lines–“Endo, to my mind, is one of the finest living novelists”).
It was really my desire to understand Endo, more than my enjoyment of the book that kept me listening to the audiobook. The reader was intentionally dry. That matched the content, but did not enhance the listening. The book started and ended well, but there was some meandering in the middle that makes sense in the larger context of the books but I got a bored for a good 100 pages.
It really was not until about 1/3 of the way through the book that Greene references the reason for the title. In a public conversation with a woman that Brown (the main character) is having an affair with, he suggests that they are all really comedians. He is using an older meaning of comedian, the idea that Greek actors held different masks. But also (not mentioned, but I think understood) that Greek Comedies were usually poking fun at the powerful of the age. It is not really satire. But there is some hint of that idea.
The book opens with Brown, Smith and Jones all on a boat headed toward Haiti. Brown owns a hotel in Haiti during the oppressive government of Papa Doc Duvalier. Jones is an unknown, but suspected from fairly early on of being a con man. Smith (and his wife) are from the United States. He was a very minor presidential candidate that is a proponent of vegetarianism as a way of life and a method toward world wide peace.
Brown, aware of the political difficulty, knows how ridiculous it is for Smith to be attempting to create a vegetarian propaganda center in the midst of a repressive dictatorship and severe economic recession. Smith seems to be a stand-in for the US as a whole. Naive but well meaning and in the end unable to actually do anything about the larger situation, but still attempting to help in his own way.
Jones is a minor character in the first half of the book when Brown is primarily concerned with Smith. But eventually Smith leaves and the Jones storyline becomes the main one. I am not going to spoil the book, but what is most interesting about the book is the exploration of how important mixed motives are to any story. Brown, Smith, Jones and the other characters are far from perfect. But there is often good intentions mixed up with less honorable intentions.
There is humor in the book, although it is dry humor. Greene is poking fun at Duvalier and how the powerful countries run over small countries and how the cold war propped up dictatorships. This book was published in 1966. And the exact setting is somewhat vague (but may be clear to people more familiar with the history of Haiti.) I do know that it is after the US initially withdrew from Haiti in 1962 and before the US came back to the US (sometime after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, which Duvalier claimed was the result of him cursing Kennedy.)
I am glad I read this. I did not know much about the history of Haiti. And I think reading about a historical deterioration of society is useful to think about instead of post-apocalyptic future fantasy. The type of deterioration of society that is going on in Syria has happened before on different scales. But this is not a super engaging novel. There were several places that I might have given up if I had not really wanted to finish because of the relationship to Endo. I will pick up another book or two from Greene, because he really is a good writer and I really did love The End of the Affair. But this is not one of my favorite classic novels. (But it really did pick up in the 100 pages or so.)
I can see why so many compare Endo to Greene, even if there was not a known admiration between the two.