Teaching Graham Greene in Haiti

Sarah Juliet Lauro in Avidly:

Fav_Philip-1160x1740Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, is the focal point of this class trip: we are there to gather material for a set of multi-media annotations that we hope to make available for free online. Greene wrote the book while living at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince during the Duvalier regime, and the narrative wrestles— if only in the corner of its eye, seen in flittering references to the USA’s propping up of Papa Doc — with the larger issue of foreign involvement in Haiti.

Greene’s novel offers a unique perspective on outsiders in Haiti, particularly in the book’s searing depiction of the American couple Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a well-meaning but ridiculous pair who have come in the hopes of building a center for vegetarianism. Brown, the narrator, points out that, too poor to buy meat, the majority of the population are de facto herbivores, but this does not dissuade the Smiths in their mission to bring their brand of help to Haiti, believing as they do that carnivorous consumption leads to violence. In one of the most painful moments in the book, the reader is subjected to a bit of dramatic irony: Mr. Smith, glowing with self-satisfaction after giving a wad of cash to a legless beggar, fails to notice that he may just as well have painted the man with a bull’s-eye. As another begins to close in on this new prey, the imminent beating is obvious to the reader while Mr. Smith remains blissfully ignorant. This is also an apt parable for what many felt was happening to the aid pouring into Haiti from the US (not without strings attached) during the Duvalier regime: it never made it into the right hands. So, you’re damned if, like Smith, you do try to help. But you’re probably also a heartless asshole, like Brown, the callous European hotelier, if you don’t even care to try. The most succinct and telling characterization of this type of self-interested foreigner is Brown’s horribly unmoving one-line eulogy when he sees that his longtime servant, Joseph, has died fighting the dictatorship: “He used to make good rum-punches.”

More here.