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June 27, 2022
ARTS & LEISURE BOOKS EDITORIAL OP-ED OPINION POINTS OF VIEW

Toffs, Tarts, and Actors

By Vlad Popescu

Graham Greene takes us to a unique setting, where he builds a unique type of character development in order to deliver what became one of my favorite novels of all time. “The Comedians” is set in Haiti under the rule of the infamous Francois Duvalier, nicknamed Papa Doc.

The action is narrated by Brown, an Englishman who owns a hotel in Port-au-Prince. He became very close to my heart as he tells the story of people without roots and beliefs while being one himself. Through this eventful journey in a land of darkness he shows us the role every man without roots and beliefs plays in this life and how much of a “comedian” every character who contributes to the plot is.

Out of the several characters we are introduced to at the beginning of the novel on Medea (a cargo-ship headed to Port-au-Prince), our focus is immediately brought to Smith, Jones, and Brown, characters who are all supposed to play their own role and wear their own mask, given by their apparently basic and uninteresting names. One of the most interesting concepts in the book to me was Jones’s way to divide people into “toffs” and “tarts”, never hesitating to consider himself a “tart”, always dependent on “toffs” and living on his wits. And that proves true of him, as all his endeavors are tied to the ones he considers “toffs”: Brown, Mr. Smith, and even Captain Concasseur, the face of the Tontons Macoute, Papa Doc’s secret police.

It is through the presence of the Tontons Macoute that an atmosphere of terror is instilled, which is later amplified by Haiti’s corruption and political games in a land of abysmal living conditions. Brown wins and loses through his defiant attitude towards the government, describing it from the very beginning to Jones as “a country of tarts all right – from the President downwards.”

The worst and best in Brown is brought out by probably the only character of the book without a part to play, a mask, and scripted lines, Marta Pineda. She is Brown’s lover and the wife of the Uruguayan ambassador in Port-au-Prince. Brown’s lack of roots brings him close to her as their relationship goes through many changes, but he comes to realize how much she actually lives, going by no script and just by her honest feelings.

One of the most interesting characters to analyze in “The Comedians” is Dr. Magiot. Although not a central character in the plot, he contributes heavily to the political and philosophical aspects of the novel. Even though he presents himself as a committed Communist, what he essentially represents is a man who preserved his faith in a just society even when facing great hardships, always striving for a better state of the future. He advises Brown not to abandon all faith if he has abandoned one faith, considering at the same time that it might be “the same faith under another mask.”

Ultimately, Greene gives us this novel to show us how being bad comedians doesn’t mean being bad people, that even dying can be someone’s part in their role, making the audience give death a standing ovation. He makes us think about our ways, beliefs, and roots. And we determine whether it’s our part or not.

 

Photo: www.pixabay.com

 

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