In 1791, a self-educated slave in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue started a revolution against France. Inspired by the French Revolution of 1789 and prompted by the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Rights Of Man”, a slave named Toussaint Breda (history calls him Toussaint L'Ouverture – also the “black Napoleon”) led this slaves’ revolt, breaking away from Napoleon’s France and leading to the creation of the independent nation now known as Haiti in 1804. Throughout its more than two centuries of existence since, Haiti has been characterized by abject poverty, political instability and repression, superstition and despair, to which were added astonishing measures of death and destruction on January 12, 2010.
Just by happenstance, I had started re-reading Graham Greene’s THE COMEDIANS, one of my favorite books by my favorite author, on the weekend preceding the devastating earthquake in Haiti. THE COMEDIANS, set in that particular hell that was the Haiti of the despotic Papa Doc Duvalier and his secret police (the Tontons Macoute), was published in 1966. Greene had first visited Haiti in the 1950’s, fell in love with the place and the people, and had made several visits prior to the publication of his book. THE COMEDIANS drew worldwide acclaim which only intensified the resentment and enmity of Papa Doc and precluded Greene from ever stepping foot on Haitian soil again.
THE COMEDIANS is a novel that incorporates several of Greene’s themes - betrayal, redemption, commitment and, most appropriate to the current situation, loss of faith. He explores these themes against the backdrop of poverty, repression and brutality that seems to have characterized Haiti forever, but was particularly pronounced during the 14-year reign of Papa Doc which ended with his death in 1971 and was followed by another 15 years of his son, Bebe Doc, who was ousted in 1986.
The principal non-Haitian characters (the comedians) meet on a ship bound for Haiti. Brown (Greene’s narrator) is a non-committed half-Englishman returning to Port-au-Prince after a short absence. He is returning, somewhat reluctantly, to the capital city to resume his role as owner/manager of a hotel he recently inherited from his mother. Brown finds himself involved in the lives and deaths of several Haitians as well as the lives of the other comedians and the death of one. The other comedians include Smith, a one-time US Presidential Candidate (he received over 10,000 votes in 1948) and his wife, both dedicated vegetarians who are bound for Haiti on a misguided mission to convince the government of Papa Doc to work with them to improve the diet of the locals. Jones (he calls himself Major Jones) is a shadowy character who may or may not be the military man he claims to be and whose involvement leading some of the anti-Papa Doc rebels proves fatal.
The fascination of Graham Greene’s story lies, not only in the descriptions of Papa Doc’s Haiti, but against this background, how these comedians become involved with the Haitians who inhabit that particular hell on earth. The Haitian Dr. Magiot, a committed Communist who lives on the razor’s edge as an opponent of Papa Doc, was also one of Brown’s mother’s lovers as well as her trusted physician and advisor. Brown gets to know, admire and trust the Haitian doctor and, through him, starts to learn something about himself, his faith and his own lack of commitment. This question of commitment is also evident in Brown’s affair with the wife of a Haitian diplomat. Through other Haitians, one of whom works at his hotel, Brown gets to witness an all-night voodoo ceremony in the hills beyond Port-au-Prince. Born into the Catholic faith, Brown recognizes some of the Latin phrases used in the rituals, the “Agnus Deis” and “Libera nos a malo”, he witnesses a priest biting off the head of a live chicken and he hears another priest summoning the gods of Dahomey, including Baron Samedi, the skull-faced, top-hatted, dark sunglass-wearing, cigar-smoking voodoo god of death. In the novel, Greene has his narrator Brown make several references to Papa Doc Duvalier as “Baron Samedi” and, to the extent that the Tontons Macoute all wore dark sunglasses, the imagery is rather pointed.
It is interesting that Greene’s Catholicism was used by the slaves to disguise the beliefs they carried with them from West Africa, the combination of the two becoming Haiti’s belief system called voduo (voodoo). The slaves would publicly recite their OUR FATHERS and HAIL MARYS as a part of their ceremonies to convince their masters that they had, indeed, adopted Christianity, all the while incorporating and keeping intact their African beliefs and rituals.
The whole question of faith is summed up near the conclusion of THE COMEDIANS in Dr.Magiot’s letter to Greene’s narrator, Brown, who has been forced to flee from Haiti. Dr. Magiot knows that his own end, at the hands of Papa Doc, may be imminent and counsels Brown:
"If you have abandoned one faith, do not abandon all faith. There is always an alternative to the faith we lose. Or is it the same faith under another mask?"
It well may be that Dr. Magiot’s advice would apply equally to today’s post-earthquake Haitian population. The million or more homeless may well be in the process of abandoning all faith, at least in their own institutions, and seeking other more responsive gods. On the other hand, it may be that, in January 2010, all of Haiti’s masks were dropped and, while the Haitian people may not have abandoned all their faiths, their faiths may have abandoned them.
It might turn out that the only god who matters anymore is Baron Samedi, their voodoo god of death.