The Comedians—Graham Greene

[I read this 1966 novel in four sections, writing about each section before reading on.]

26 January 2020
Chapters 1-3 (of five) of Part 1
Greene-land, it used to be called, that place inhabited by a worldly-wise and world-weary narrator who wants to let us know how far things have come from some ideal place he remembers or imagines. Are Greene’s novels always comedies so dark they aren’t really comedies any more? That’s what this one seems to be, with absurd little comedy moments and almost farcical details. Brown, the narrator, is embarrassed to introduce himself to Smith and Jones on the ship sailing to Haiti from America, in case they think he’s joking. But he’s happy enough to tell us the money-making scheme he dreamed up after the war, getting a penniless artist to create modern art pastiches, then persuading gullible people to pay thirty or forty pounds in case the (fictitious) artist becomes the next Picasso. He’s convinced himself there were no losers: the artist earns more than enough to live on, the buyers get something interesting to show their friends, and Brown himself does pretty well out of it. He sells the business when a newspaper starts sniffing around….

This isn’t one of the moral dilemmas he sometimes has to face. Or if it is, he doesn’t recognise it as one. But then, that’s how he lives his life. He had been noticed at his Catholic school in Monte Carlo as being highly suitable for the priesthood—based on little more, he tells us, than his ability to compose Latin verses. But one night, using stage makeup from the school play he was in and a borrowed jacket, he escapes to the Casino and takes a different course. Do we believe he could really have won $300, and that a full-grown woman would follow his lead at the roulette table, win money for herself and then, with no apparent forethought, find herself going to bed with him? It doesn’t matter that it’s preposterous, it’s a comedy. As for right and wrong—who really cares?

Graham Greene cares. As he reminds us in his introduction, he is not the narrator, and through Brown’s determinedly pragmatic approach to any ethical problem, Greene forces readers to draw their own conclusions. I would imagine that readers in the 1960s, especially male readers, would have found it all too easy to go along Brown’s cynical certainties. His sense of entitlement, his assumption of superiority over other races, his apparently casual attitude to women…. We recognise men like this, and might remember a time when attitudes like Brown’s were the norm. To some extent—I don’t really know how far yet—Greene is questioning all of it. This exotic world of casinos and tropical republics feels like Ian Fleming, but that doesn’t make Brown an Ian Fleming character. He’s definitely a Graham Greene character.

What should I tell you? Brown touches on periods in his life from his time as the star student at school to his current role as the owner of a failing hotel in Haiti—all, so far, within a framing narrative of his return to the republic from America. The opening chapters take place on the ship, and it’s where Brown introduces us to the idea of how people, mainly men, choose to present themselves to the world. This is the point of his Smith/Jones/Brown joke—he’s not at all sure that Jones is the real name of the ‘Major’, or that he’s really a major at all. Smith, on the other hand—it’s his pushy wife who always refers to him as the Presidential Candidate—could not be any more straight if he used a ruler. He and she are robustly vegetarian, teetotal, pacifist, so Brown is satirical about them. I’m sure Greene was no vegetarian, but I think he’ll reveal some real strength in Smith before the end. Or maybe it’s Jones who’ll come good. Brown opens the novel with a reference to the memorial to him, the one he paid for ‘with his life,’ so maybe we should be careful about jumping to conclusions. That’s probably the point…

…because to Brown, everybody is a comedian. He’s using it as much in the French sense as in the English, so that when he later refers to his mother in that way, he’s talking about how good she was (he thinks—he hardly knew her) at playing whatever part in life was most useful at the time. He uses French a lot, having been educated in Monaco, but he spent most of his adult life in England. His mother had left him in school when he was twelve, and he didn’t see her again until a postcard from her suggested he might want to see her in Haiti. She was a vicomtesse by then, or so she claimed. And it’s from her that he inherits the hotel, in her ownership by as preposterous a route as his own winnings in the Casino in his teens. Her presence in the owner’s will had been a legal trick on his part—he wasn’t supposed to have been killed in an accident so soon after the will had been drawn up.

She dies herself the night her son arrives, to the effusive anguish of Marcel, her Haitian lover. And in her will she has left her son almost two-thirds of the hotel, the lover a third, and two others a one per cent share each. Brown decides to run the rather mediocre place into something special, gets a loan to buy Marcel out, and sets about bringing his plans about. We can believe, if we want to believe anything in this slightly preposterous universe, that anyone who can come up with that modern art scam of his can make an ordinary hotel into a night-club sensation… which is what he does. It’s just a pity he didn’t listen to the ultra-competent, ultra-reliable Dr Magiot, another Haitian, who suggests he shouldn’t bother. A certain other doctor he knows about—and we know exactly who he means, Brown having mentioned him a lot already—is likely to win the next election, and who knows what will happen to Haiti when he does?

We know, because at the opening of the novel, as Brown sails back, the country is in meltdown. The Tonton Macoute are making the lives of everyone at best uncertain and at worst a living nightmare. Or not living. The very minister Smith had an appointment to see is dead in the drained hotel swimming-pool when Brown arrives, and there’s a moment of near-farce as he, Brown, makes sure the Presidential Candidate and his wife don’t get to see the corpse. They’ve arrived at the hotel as they said they would, and it’s lucky that they are used to living frugally. The only member of staff remaining is Joseph, the factotum made permanently lame following an interrogation by the Tonton Macoute. In the hotel’s short-lived heyday—about three years—Joseph’s cocktails had been legendary. Now, as for everyone in Haiti, his horizons have shrunk to almost nothing.

What else? There’s a lover—of course there is—dating back to Brown’s first few weeks in Haiti. He had been in the casino, he had been on a lucky streak on the same table as Marcel was losing all the money from the buy-out—and a woman is following his bets with her own. It’s Monte Carlo all over again—except, as Brown puts it, whereas then he was young enough to be the woman’s son, this time he’s old enough to be her father. This is his world, where a man (or boy) takes his chances and makes sardonic comments about life’s little ironies. His life’s full of them, like the event that finishes off the night for him. Marcel had booked the vicomtesse’s old room for the night and hanged himself from the lamp.

Brown doesn’t like Germans, this soon after the war—Duvalier came to power in 1957, so this meeting in the casino must be taking place in about 1954—but the new lover, Martha, is the German wife of some South American ambassador. He’s very happy to start an affair with such a woman, because… well, what else is a man going to do? She wouldn’t have had anything to do with the war effort, and Brown is at some pains to let us know that Luis, her husband, is exactly the sort of self-important stuffed shirt that it’s a pleasure to betray. The only fly in the ointment is their son, Angel. Brown makes a big thing of the name, because he is the opposite of an ethereal creature. He’s an obese, heavyweight presence, spends far too much time eating, and is so jealous of Martha’s time that he’s the one Brown considers his rival. When Brown decides to travel to New York to try to sell the hotel, he hadn’t seen where the affair was leading. She isn’t going to leave Luis because of Angel, and… what? On the first page of the novel, as he’s sailing back following the inevitable failure of the sale, he refers to ‘the empty hotel and the love affair that was almost as empty.’ He is very surprised indeed that she is there at their old rendezvous when he arrives back in Port-au-Prince after three months away. And the affair picks up where they seem to have left it.

Time to see what the rest of Part 1 will bring. I’ll be very surprised if it’s anything good.

28 January
Chapters 4 and 5—to the end of Part 1
Greene’s (or Brown’s) Haiti is a pretty squalid place. It probably really was like this by the late 1950s, when this is all happening—and, as expected, nothing good happens. But there are a couple of set-piece scenes, one confirming just how farcically nasty a place Haiti has become, and the other… the same, but with the bonus of a big surprise to end it. And while I haven’t changed my mind that Graham Greene is definitely not Ian Fleming, I think maybe he’s doing what Evelyn Waugh did in Scoop. Perhaps Jones, the one who’s going to be dead by the end of all this, might be a satirical version of a James Bond hero, just like Baldwin in Waugh’s novel. The man everybody is suspicious of—even the all-trusting Smith can’t bring himself to refer to him as a major—becomes the VIP so feted by the Duvalier regime he can have whatever he likes. And his unexpected entrance at the end of Part 1 might just have saved Brown’s life.

Part 1 takes us to the half-way point of the novel, and we’re definitely at the end of the beginning. Brown has only been back in Haiti a couple of days—long enough for him to have seen Martha twice, neither time very satisfactorily, and long enough to make an enemy of the man who seems to be a bigshot in the Tonton Macoute. But I need to rewind, because Greene has Brown bringing his ideas about ‘comedians’ right into the foreground a few pages into Chapter 4. Brown is at the British consulate, or whatever remains of it, hoping to find out what is happening to Jones. He muses on the parts he and the chargé d’affaires are playing. ‘He was the perfect spectator…. For some reason, I thought of my mother’s words to me when I saw her for the last time. “What part are you playing now?” I suppose I was playing a part.’ He can’t help thinking about the hurried sex with Martha the previous night, in a Peugeot. ‘I’m sure the chargé would have disapproved of my cuckolding a member of the diplomatic corps. The act belonged too closely to the theatre of farce.’ There’s a lot of self-loathing in Brown, as though he considers his whole life a farce.

But the chapter opens with him and Dr Magiot discussing what to do with the body in the swimming-pool. It’s that of Philipot, the Secretary of Health and Welfare and the addressee of Smith’s letter of introduction—and he’s killed himself before the Tonton Macoute can do it for him. He’d had the temerity, allegedly—it seems hard to believe—to make fun of Duvalier’s medical competence. Brown and Magiot decide to hide the body further up the hill from the hotel, away from the city, where it will probably lie undiscovered for weeks…

…except it doesn’t. A typically farcical, typically dark mischance has the body being discovered by a woman who has been taken there by a guard at the security post so she can offer him a reason to let her through. They can’t just leave the body because her scream brings the other guards running. Which leads directly to the first of those set pieces I mentioned. Philipot’s wife has arranged for a proper funeral and, while Brown is in the hotel, reading through the account Smith has written for his friends back home, there’s a disturbance outside. The hearse, having been blocked at the security check below the hotel, is trying to turn around in the hotel drive. Another car is somehow involved and Brown goes with Smith and his wife to offer help.

The important passenger in the other car is that Tonton Macoute bigshot I mentioned—it’s only becoming clear what a high position he holds at the end of Part 1—and Smith and Brown recognise him. He had been determinedly outstaring them in the police station where Jones had been held overnight, and he singles out Brown for a warning not to stare in future.

It starts to become farcical when, as everything grinds to a standstill, a feral cat perches itself on the glass roof of the hearse. It screeches and spits at them, and Brown comments on how the Haitians probably consider it to be the unquiet spirit of the dead man. Philipot’s wife has promised their young nephew an ice-cream, and soon she has taken him up to the hotel to get one. Later, Brown comments on how the boy is sitting with the funeral directors Dupont and Dupont (no comment, Tintin fans), their top hats resting by them ‘like giant ashtrays’, and all three are enjoying their vanilla ices with chocolate topping. The final farcical touch is the way the Tonton Macoute smash the side glass of the hearse, pull out the coffin, and stuff as much of it as will fit into the boot. Half of it sticks out, and they unceremoniously tie it with rope. Brown muses on how the Haitians will be even more terrified now—people aren’t even safe in death. One of Duvalier’s nicknames is Baron Samedi, the top-hatted figure who haunts cemeteries after dark, and no doubt Haitians will believe Philipot to be another conscript in his zombie entourage.

Smith’s report back to his American supporters, the one Brown had been reading, is the first of two written versions of that we are presented with as alternatives to Brown’s world-view. It is almost laughably naïve, the Presidential Candidate being so determined to see the good in this new Black (or coloured) republic that he seems blind to what Brown sees as starkly obvious. Brown is right. In Smith’s account of their visit to the police station, Jones has only been kept because of a misunderstanding, and he entirely glosses over the injuries he’s suffered overnight. In some ways, before he starts to see things a little more clearly, he’s like an ultra-liberal Dr Pangloss, only seeing the good in everything and everyone, and explaining difficulties as the teething troubles of an almost new-born regime.

But I suspect that a writer as thoughtful as Greene finds him more interesting than Brown does. He isn’t going to present his readers with a bleeding-heart Aunt Sally to be knocked down. And, indeed, the incident of the hearse has made Smith begin to amend his view a little. His wife, as assertive as she always is, had remonstrated with one of the Tonton Macoute heavies and, placing his hand firmly on her face, he had pushed her backwards into a bush. She’s made of strong stuff, and later shows her husband that her face is unmarked, but it’s clear that both of them need to recalibrate their opinions. Not all of Brown’s pessimism, they realise, is unfounded—and Smith decides his report to his supporters can wait.

There’s another alternative voice, Martha’s. While he was in New York, Brown tells us, she sent him a letter in reply to one he had ‘grudgingly, jealously’ written to her. Hers, he realises now, had been written is written ‘with tenderness, without rancour.’ He quotes half-a-dozen lines, in which she tries to unpack ethics of extramarital sex: ‘If we can survive it with charity to those we love and with affection to those we have betrayed, we needn’t worry so much about the good and the bad in us.’ By the time he’s reporting this, Brown has already let us know both that the affair does not survive more than a few months after the events we’re reading about now—and that shortly after that he will understand what love is, and that he loves her. But that’s in the future. As he had read the letter, he wasn’t ready yet. He became exasperated with ‘its lack of sincerity’ and tore it up.

In the second half of the book, I suspect we’ll see how such a hopeless case can learn to understand a few things. He’s already realised, during the second unsatisfactory encounter he has with Martha back in Haiti, that the woman he thought was no ‘comedian’—had no ability to be anybody but herself—is actually the best one he knows. Playing a part isn’t only jut a mean-minded deception, as she demonstrates when he’s in her house, in the presence of her husband and son.

Maybe what Brown is having to learn that his dismissive use of the term ‘comedians’ is all wrong. Just because we might present different faces to different people in different circumstances, it doesn’t make us guilty of cynical play-acting. That might be true in the case of Duvalier—he nurtures his ‘Baron Samedi’ image—and his thuggish henchmen hiding what they can behind their dark glasses. But Martha has shown him another aspect of it, and Part 1 ends with that surprise that up-ends his opinion of Jones. The circumstances are as farcical as ever, as Brown visit Haiti’s best brothel to console himself after his chaste night—ending in his failure to perform when Martha had finally taken pity on him. Tintin, his favourite girl—yes, I know—is busy with a special visitor, and waiting in the lounge while he is busy is that same member of the Tonton Macoute. Brown finally remembers who he is, remembers his comedy name, and remembers the absurd high-profile building project he wasted a lot of US aid money on. He is Concasseur—rock-breaker, if you’re being polite, which Brown isn’t—and the project was Haiti’s first luxury ice-rink. Brown makes some oblique comments about ice-skating as they wait, but stops when Concasseur places his gun on the table between them. The moment of danger passes, but the man lets Brown know that he’s only safe for now…

…which is when the VIP emerges, and it’s Jones. He’s delighted to see Brown, who is astonished that the man he was earlier getting out of a police cell, using $200 of Smith’s that Brown had told him was to be considered as bail, is now Duvalier’s honoured guest. Jones’s letter of introduction, or whatever it was, clearly carried a lot more weight than Smith’s—and must not have been addressed to an enemy of the state. Brown must be wondering just who the comedians are in this circus. Part 1 ends with an admission from Brown, after Tintin tells him Jones had made her laugh: ‘I had learnt in a disorganised life many tricks, but not the trick of laughter.’ Clearly, Jones has—and apparently it’s very useful.

29 January
Part 2
Only three chapters, and the whole of Part 2 is only just over one third of the length of Part 1. But plenty happens, on several different levels. More seems to happen in a few days of Brown’s life than in all his previous three years in Haiti—but then, more happened in the two days following his arrival back as well. I suppose it’s Greene’s job to provide him with plenty to think about, and he does. There’s what Brown calls the most important conversation he ever has with Martha—including any later ones, he tells us—and she, in particular, goes further than she ever has before in talking about life in Germany during the war. She was only a girl, but her father was a war criminal (as Brown told us a long time back), and she offers her own insights about the rights and wrongs of staying silent under dictatorial regimes. They are lying on the ground beyond the hotel swimming pool, and all Brown can think about is death. He tells Martha about finding Philipot’s body in the pool, and… it’s clear that his situation is making him think more deeply about his own life than he ever has in the past.

He’s surrounded by people who don’t just want to just keep their heads down and, as he puts it, wait for the tourists to come back like the good capitalist he is. It’s neve caused him any problems before, and he isn’t going to make a big thing of it now, but the extraordinary degree to which the Smiths live according to their own principles is something new. When Smith is confronted by the bare-faced corruption of yet another official and admits he might not have been seeing things clearly before, he suggests to Brown that he must see him and his wife as figures of fun. Brown tells him he thinks they are heroic. Philipot’s son—not the ice cream-eating nephew—had been a would-be poet in the Baudelaire style in pre-Duvalier days, but now he’s itching to get his hands on a ‘Bren’. Or, preferably, enough Brens to equip a force to take back control….

And there are others. Is Joseph one of them? He hasn’t come back from an illegal night-time voodoo funeral that Brown had driven him to and, by coincidence or not, two policemen have been shot in Port-au-Prince on the same night. It’s the show executions of random prisoners, with children forced to watch, that finally drives the Smiths out of Haiti. They are only travelling as far as the Dominican Republic, which forms the eastern section of the same island, so I’m wondering whether they might make it back before the end of the book. Whatever… Brown’s involvement with Joseph the previous night has given Consasseur an excuse to give him a hard time—and it’s lucky that it happens before the Smiths have decided to leave. Concasseur has already terrified Brown enough to make him wet his pants when Mrs Smith save the day. In the French she’s taught herself since they set sail from America, she tells Concasseur just what she thinks of his methods. He’s knocked off-balance enough by this white madwoman to take his henchmen home.

It gets more complicated because of Jones. He lets Brown know that he’s told the politicians that if his dear friend is harassed again he, Brown, will bring to an end all the business he’s doing with them. What business, Brown wonders… and Jones won’t tell him. He just says that if Brown comes in with him, he’ll end up with half of the quarter-million dollars he’s set to make. He needs a partner to take care of things while he will have to leave the country for a short time to set things up. Brown isn’t quick take him up on the offer, even when Jones increases the sum he’s promising. He has no idea what it will involve, what Jones’s motives are, or whether Brown would be able to square whatever it is with his own conscience. He doesn’t state this explicitly, either to Jones or to the reader, but just because a man thinks life is a joke, it doesn’t mean anything goes.

I think that’s what this novel is really about. Brown hasn’t been faced with any truly difficult moral dilemmas yet, but I suspect he might be in Part 3. Almost everything that’s happened since he arrived back in Haiti has made him realise how, until now, he’s got be without really questioning his own easy certainties. Everybody’s a comedian, we’ve all got to make a living, and in the great scheme of things nothing really amounts to a hill of beans. A man like him isn’t going to make any great moral or political stand, isn’t going to put himself in the way of danger—and wouldn’t recognise the love of a good woman if he fell over it. But there have been enough hints for us to believe that people like him, perhaps to their own astonishment, are capable of change.

We’ll see—but just before I read on, just a couple of incidents that confirm the kind of world this is. One is when Brown is with Smith and a corrupt official whose only interest is in getting money for projects in order to pocket the cash. They are visiting Duvalierville, touted as the Brasilia of Haiti—which, to nobody’s surprise, is a few half-finished concrete showhouses and a bigger structure. ‘Is that an arena?’ asks Smith. No, it’s for cockfights, answers the minister. A beggar attempts to sell them some tourist tat, and Smith wants to buy it. When, just before they leave, he does manage to slip the beggar some money, Brown looks back to see the only official in the place bearing down on the beggar to take from him whatever he can. Smith, of course, doesn’t see this—and neither does he see the dog-eat-dog struggle that ensues when he and Mrs Smith toss around all their remaining money jut before they leave Haiti. This takes place at the main post office, and Brown later describes it as the last instalment of American aid. Ah.

30 January
Part 3—to the end
A lot of things come together in this final section. I don’t just mean the ill-fated thriller plot, although all the loose ends are tied up carefully as though they matter. They do matter, but there are other things that matter more. The love story, written in the Graham Greene manner—wordy, self-examining, guilt-ridden—that reaches its sad end at the same time as Jones’s desperate attempt to organise the rebels on the border. The endless questioning of what life might mean, even by a narrator who pretends he gave up the search at the age of twelve. The lovers’ endless conversations that become a philosophical exploration about exactly this—going as far as to examine how a man like Brown becomes the author of his own self-destructive narrative. And somewhere in there too is a sly twisted version of a morality tale, with characters given names which are, with one exception, the opposite of helpful labels. I think only Concasseur has a name that fits—and he’s the only one who is exactly what he appears to be.

Jones is the exact opposite. Everybody thinks they can see through his act, and he doesn’t always make it difficult. He had been perfectly happy, for instance, to demonstrate to Brown why he plays gin rummy for small stakes rather than scaring people off with poker—but, to misquote Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, Jones turns out all right in the end. Like Gatsby, he’s a man who has spent his life reinventing himself and, like Gatsby, he does it through crooked deals. But that’s where the similarity ends, because Jones isn’t the front man for somebody else’s well-oiled criminal machine. He’s on his own, and his schemes always come to nothing. And yet—how does Brown put it on the first page? ‘I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones.’

Just before the unsuccessful guerrilla attack that Jones doesn’t survive—it’s the flat feet that barred him from military service that fail him in the end, as darkly comic an irony as any in the book—he confesses it all to Brown. He’s an almost complete fake, having only served in Burma as a kind of entertainment officer. He’s never led any soldiers in his life, is no more a major than Brown is, and he is a wanted man in so many countries he has nowhere to go. But when Brown speaks to Philipot after the attack, beyond the border in the Dominican Republic, he describes a hero. ‘He was a wonderful man. With him we began to learn, but he didn’t have enough time. The men loved him. He made them laugh.’ No, Jones isn’t Gatsby, he’s the Wizard of Oz. He gives people what they want, and everybody’s happy.

Everybody except Brown, for a reason that goes back to near the beginning of Part 3. And to the beginning of his adult life, for that matter. Sex raises its ugly head, again—it’s always ugly where Brown is concerned—in the form of his unfounded jealousy. And, now I think about it, it’s another sort of jealousy: Jones, as we know, can make people laugh. This is what he is doing in the Embassy where Martha’s husband is the ambassador. Brown has helped to spirit him there after one of the most farcical episodes in the book—he’d got him on to the ship they’d sailed in on, in port for the night, but had to smuggle him out again, dressed as a flamenco dress and minus his trademark moustache—and everybody loves him. Even the ambassador’s dog dotes on him, to the exclusion of everyone else. Brown, based on no evidence at all, decides he’s sleeping with Martha.

In fact, Jones is becoming a different Evelyn Waugh character, Grimes in Decline and Fall, the one who’s always landing ‘in the soup.’ He’s likeable, plausible, and always making the wrong decisions. Concasseur has been humiliated when their moneymaking scam falls apart. Jones’s fate is sealed because he has no options left. People believe his claims that he could lead a resistance group, and Brown is keen to encourage their belief, because it will get Jones away from Martha. He’ll happily take Jones up to near the border, where Philipot and the others hope to combine with another group of ill-equipped resistance fighters. The thriller elements come into play when Brown drives Jones, under cover of one of the nightly storms, past security checks—nobody checks anybody in the middle of a storm—and on to the highway.

Except, after a very few miles—and as everybody knows—it’s no more than a track, as rocky in places as a dried riverbed. Their progress is painfully slow, Jones props up his own morale with whisky… and, two or three miles from the rendezvous point, the car’s front axle snaps in two. Now Brown is as much in the soup as Jones. They make their way to the cemetery where they are to meet Philipot and, inevitably, he isn’t there. They spend an uncomfortable night under one of the grandiose monuments, and this is both where a second feral cat makes its appearance and Jones decides it’s time for those confessions. By the early morning, when Brown leaves Jones to it—they can only hope that Philipot will come the next night while Brown makes his way to the Dominican border—things look pretty bleak.

For a short time, things look even bleaker. He and Jones had passed a government Jeep at one of the checkpoints, and now Concasseur is there, pointing a gun straight at him. He’s saved, again, and the unlikely rescuer this time is Philipot. He and his makeshift group have enough firepower, just, to kill Brown’s nemesis and his men. Brown is glad to see Joseph with the would-be insurgents, for what turns out to be the last time, and he leaves Jones with them. Much later, when he talks to Philipot again about what happened in the jungle, Brown has been over the border for some time and is seeking a new life.

From the beginning, the thriller plot has been presented in the darkest of dark colours, by a narrator who is suspicious about the value of anything, Of course, it isn’t Brown who develops the storylines, but Greene. This isn’t simply the Haiti of the early 1960s, because there are also absurd characters and plot lurches of Greene’s own invention. Never mind the spitting cat on the hearse—and that other cat disturbing the mood of an even darker scene. By the end, Brown has been saved from almost certain death at Concasseur’s hands on three separate occasions by three highly fortunate interventions worthy of Evelyn Waugh. It’s not even supposed to be plausible…

…because, really, the thriller elements aren’t the main interest. In a Graham Greene novel, bigger concerns are always in the air, like Brown’s Catholic education. Now, of course, he pretends he’s OK without any kind of belief system, that he’s content to see everything as an unfolding comedy of the absurd. And a lot of the time, Greene helps him along in this view by adding to the absurdities… until he doesn’t. In Part 3, more than ever before, he’s bringing Brown face-to-face with the fact that his world-view just doesn’t wash. He, Brown, had already come to an understanding that there’s something about the almost clownishly liberal Smith and his terrifying wife that make them heroic. Now, he has conversations with Philipot and Dr Magiot in which he simply can’t pretend, either to himself or to them, that the cause is not worth fighting for. And then there’s the faker, Jones. How did it go? ‘I can find no reason to mock the modest stone….’

Alongside this we get Brown’s cynical view of love. Greene doesn’t let him get away with this either. He makes both him and his lover endlessly mull over not only the nature of love, but of belief and whole other areas of human existence. At one point, Martha becomes so exasperated by Brown she tries to explicate him. ‘To you nothing exists except in your own thoughts. Not me, not Jones. We’re what you choose to make us. You’re a Berkeleyan. My God, what a Berkeleyan. You’ve turned poor Jones into a seducer and me int a wanton mistress. You can’t even believe in your mother’s medal, can you? You’ve written her a different part. My dear, try to believe we exist when you aren’t there….’

And later in this conversation—or a different one, because even Brown admits that they blur into one another—she puts him in the role of an author, one who has made a ‘dark Brown world….’ For me, this is one of the most interesting places Greene goes to in Part 3. This novel is ostensibly Brown’s narrative, of course—and, in his company, we’ve been wrestling with the extent to which we are to believe the versions of themselves that people choose to present. It’s a valid question—but Graham Greene is having his single most reliable character, Martha, undermine the way that Brown is going about it. When we make judgments about who people are behind their masks, do we get it wrong? Or, do we allow our judgment about this aspect—like, seeing Smith as no more than a naïve do-gooder—to get in the way of seeing a person’s value? This is one of the big things Brown learns, and I can imagine Graham Greene smiling to himself that he’s making the reader learn it too….

Along with the comic anonymity of the character-names and the almost farcical details of Brown’s three near-impossible escapes from Concasseur, it makes me always keep in mind the author behind all this, pulling the strings. Greene wants us to see his working. That’s one thing about this novel that I’ll take away with me. In the letter to his former publisher that stands as a kind of foreword to the book, we get this: ‘I want to make it clear that the narrator of this tale, though his name is Brown, is not Greene.’ I never thought he was, Graham, although it’s interesting that you—or the editor of this edition—felt the need to remind us. You want to debunk the narrator’s ‘dark Brown’ world, I can see that, but you’ve had him inhabiting Greene-land in order to achieve it. What’s interesting are the differences—which might sometimes be subtle, but are ultimately crucial. Maybe this is what Greene wanted his publisher to understand.