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The origins of the title of Graham Greene's novel of the pernicious effects of Western imperialism in the desperately poor nation of Haiti under the dictatorship of the late-Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, The Comedians, is unknown. What is known is that the phrase refers to the novel's main characters, the quintessential liberal American couple the Smiths, the hotel operator Brown, and the mysterious but highly-fraudulent Jones, all of whom dabble in Haitian affairs without actually knowing what they're doing. Greene, of course, was a very cynical observer of American policy around the world, but especially in the so-called Third World, the less-developed nations that fell outside the established orbits of the two Cold War superpowers. Midway through his story, Graham has his narrator, Brown, describe his earlier life as a waiter in a French restaurant, a job he secured after lying about his past. Following this discussion of his duplicitous activities, and describing a conversation that involved the figure of Jones, whose self-described martial past is considered suspect, Brown asks rhetorically whether he and the others are "comedians," meaning something markedly other than who or what they claim to be. "Wasn't I a comedian . . .," he asks of himself after adding to his litany of fraudulent claims.
It is clear that Greene intended his characterizations and his use of the title The Comedians to convey the sense of irony inherent in his portrait of life in Haiti amidst Cold War machinations that victimized the population while enriching the rulers. Among the idiosyncratic figures who populate his novel is the character of Petit Pierre, a particularly duplicitous figure whose sympathies and loyalties are forever in question. Pierre was modeled after a real-life Haitian figure of some reknown, Aubelin Jolicoeur, who prospered under the regime of Papa Doc before souring on the dictatorship of Papa Doc's son and successor, Baby Doc. Jolicoeur has been quoted as claiming to have been the inspiration for Greene's title and theme, stating with respect to the Haitian population's practice of voodoo and other forms of the occult, “We Haitians are all comedians. What you see here is all just a show.”
That's about as good an idea of the origins and meaning of the title of Greene's novel as one is likely to attain.
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