What is the literary theme of Graham Greene's The Comedians?
The late British author Graham Greene was not only a highly respected novelist, but represented a school of British literature, together with John LeCarre (a pseudonym for David Cornwell), that was heavily steeped in cynicism and bitterness regarding Britain’s decline in as a world power and its replacement by the United States, a naïve and bumbling superpower for which both of these authors held only contempt (LeCarre is actually still alive and still turning out novels highly critical of U.S. foreign policy). One could select any of a number of Greene’s novels or short stories as exemplifying this deep cynicism. Greene had associated himself with communism in his youth and, as a member of his country’s foreign intelligence service, had been close to Kim Philby, the infamous and highly successful Soviet spy who had worked his way up the intelligence services of Great Britain before defecting to Moscow.
All of this background is provided for a reason: One cannot fully appreciate Graham Greene’s works without understanding the context in which his novels and stories were written. That is certainly the case with his 1965 novel The Comedians. The title refers to the three main characters: Mr. Brown, the story’s narrator, Mr. Smith, the representative of American naiveté, and “Major” Jones, a British expatriate who pretends to a military background that didn’t exist but whose charade does succeed in drawing him into a conflict he is ill-prepared to navigate. A suggestion regarding the theme of Greene’s novel is provided at the outset of Chapter One. Greene/Mr. Brown’s opening observations suggest the basis for the novel’s title and for the surrealistic portrait of world affairs that lies ahead:
“When I think of all the grey memorials erected in London to equestrian generals, the heroes of old colonial wars, and to frock-coated politicians who are even more deeply forgotten, I can find no reason to mock the modest stone that commemorates Jones on the far side of the international road which he failed to cross in a country far from home, though I am not to this day absolutely sure of where, geographically speaking, Jone’s home lay. At least he pay for his monument – however unwillingly – with his life, while the generals as a rule came home safe and paid, if at all, with the blood of their men, and as for the politicians – who cares for dead politicians sufficiently to remember with what issues they were identified.”
The Comedians is about the destruction wrought by well-meaning foreigners convinced that colonialism was actually a form of benevolence bestowed upon lesser peoples. The old adage, with its origins in Biblical scripture, that ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ is a polite way of suggesting that American influence abroad was more than a little ill-considered, and is embodied in the character of Mr. Smith, the selection of the quintessential American surname probably entirely intentional. If Mr. Brown is the cynical businessman, Mr. Smith is the apotheosis of that well-intentioned American neophyte soon to find himself in over his head. It is, after all, Smith’s own wife who characterizes him best in this opening sequence:
“She said, ‘I mean my husband there, Mr. Smith – he was presidential candidate in 1948. He’s an idealist. Of course, for that very reason, he stood no chance’.”
Mr. Smith’s idealism takes him and his wife to the desperately poor, brutally autocratic island-nation of Haiti, which comprises the western half of the island of Hispaniola. His aspiration of spreading the doctrine of vegetarianism to a people for whom any form of sustenance is a luxury speaks volumes regarding Greene’s antipathy toward his American cousins. The theme of The Comedians, of course, is the devastation inflicted on the innocent and the poor through Western (read: American) interventions and support of brutal dictators. Greene himself has categorized The Comedians as “a political novel,” which he distinguishes from his “Catholic” novels and which are intended to convey a point of view regarding British, French, and American policies abroad – a view, as noted, that is seriously critical and that reflects the author’s philosophical inclinations.