Other than the kids' books, I haven't finished very many books over the last while. Every time I sat down to read, I felt like there was something else I should be doing.
So over the past couple of weeks, I started and finished two novels from Mr. Fixit's shelf that I'd never read before. Made myself take the time. I read The House of the Four Winds, by John Buchan, and The Comedians, by Graham Greene. I was fascinated by their similarities in theme, although Buchan's book was what I'd call fairly family-friendly (if you can handle Sir Walter Scott, you can handle this), and Greene's was not.
Mr. Fixit says that his dad had a copy of The Comedians on the shelf when he was young, and that once he took it down himself thinking it would be a funny book--it's not, unless you like extremely black humor. It reminds me a lot of the Robert Redford/Raul Julia movie Havana, about an outsider who gets involved in the politics and danger of another country, and connects with people for whom those politics and danger mean everything. The plot of The House of the Four Winds is much the same too, although more in a gentleman-adventurer sense, and there is one other big difference: The Comedians is set in Papa Doc Duvalier's Haiti, in a very real setting (Greene is an absolute master at making you feel hot and sweaty--have you ever read The Power and the Glory?); and Buchan's book takes place in one of those ubiquitous imaginary Eastern European Monarchies.
They both have ongoing themes of disguise and role-playing, which is where the meaning of "the comedians" comes from: it's not meant in a funny sense but as a question of genuineness vs. just playing a part in life, and the idea of "all the world's a stage." In The Comedians, the main character's mother--who has evolved into several different characters in her own life--asks him, just before she dies, who he's playing. He puzzles over that for the rest of the book. Even his last name, Brown, plays on the fact that he doesn't seem to know who he is himself, much less who anybody else really is: he makes a joke himself about the fact that two other major players in the story are named Smith and Jones.
Smith--who in anybody else's book would have been a Bible-thumping missionary out to get rid of voodoo and looking like an ugly American--has a different role here. He and his wife are visiting Haiti trying to spread the gospel of vegetarianism, which, as someone points out, is ironic considering that most of the Haitians were/are too poor to eat meat anyway. He's not a negative character, although he is in some ways comic (the health-food products he and his wife eat are hilarious); he's absolutely sincere about his "ministry." The religious questions in the book come not from him but from the main character Brown's Jesuit education (at one point he had thought of becoming a priest) and from the Christian/voodoo beliefs of the Haitians. On this point I kept thinking back to Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, which followed the more typical bad-missionary storyline (although she included, for contrast, another Christian who did find better ways to connect with the Africans than the main Bible-thumping character did) and which was also set during real and similarly dangerous political upheavals, actually during the same time as The Comedians. Greene even refers to some of the events in the Congo in his book. There was one other point of similarity between those two that I noticed: one of the missionary's daughters in Poisonwood ended up marrying a Congolese man and staying in that part of Africa; it became part of her, even though conditions were horrible and her children never had enough to eat. Brown eventually has to leave Haiti, but he stays on the island (in the Dominican Republic); he could have left earlier, but somehow he couldn't. His excuse is that he has to hang on to the hotel he owns there (even though there are no tourists), but the truth is that his role in this story (on this particular stage) is to stay involved, usually more than he wants to be, just like Robert Redford's character in Havana who can't just walk away.
As I said, Greene's book has more mature content than I would be comfortable handing over to anybody under late high school age; but if you want a good read with some mid-twentieth-century history thrown in, it's worthwhile--one of those books that will stick with you. (They made a movie out of it in the '60's with an awesome cast, but I haven't seen it yet). If you prefer a few more ayes and laddies and kings-in-disguise to the desperation and tears of Greene's book, you're better off sticking to Buchan.