Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Stranger than fiction

There was a point when Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes said he was going to stop writing novels because “I can no longer compete with the daily newspaper.” The question for me is whether the true-life story of Edward Snowdon making his way to a country granting him political asylum will beat the best novel I know about the subject. That’s Graham Greene’s 1965 novel “The Comedians” which was made into an equally terrific movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. 

Greene set the novel in Haiti when it was ruled by President-for-Life Francois Duvalier. Papa Doc, as he was known, used the brutal, plain-clothed Tontons Macoute to carry out his wishes. Greene described them as "the President's boogey-men.  They wear dark glasses and call on their victims after dark." 

A story I heard about Papa Doc’s scare tactics was told to me by U.S. Senator Wyche Fowler (D-GA 1986-92). He said that Duvalier had a switch installed in the National Palace with which he could plunge the whole country into darkness. According to Fowler, Duvalier pulled the switch from time to time “just to show the people at every level of society that he could reach into their homes whenever he wanted."  Sometimes he’d leave the electricity off for a minute or two, sometimes for an hour or more.  In pre-Internet days this was certainly an interesting and innovative way to reach into people's private lives and let them be well aware of the long arm of their government.

Greene's story is that of the English owner of the “fallen on hard times” Trianon Hotel. Mr. Brown has had an ongoing romantic liaison with Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American ambassador to Haiti.  Their rendezvous site is the Christopher Columbus statue on Port-au-Prince's waterfront.   In a strange series of circumstances the hotelier ends up seeking and finding refuge for his friend and countryman, Major Jones, in ambassador Pineda's home.  Tontons Macoute respect the diplomatic immunity of the residence but the Haitian government refuses to authorize safe-passage out of the country for Major Jones.  In the novel Brown and Jones slip out of the embassy residence during a torrential rainstorm while the Tontons Macoute have accepted drinks in the kitchen.

In the movie it is more exciting. The Tontons Macoute are distracted by a decoy car they go chasing after and in which they find nothing.  Meanwhile, Jones makes it out of the embassy residence in the trunk of another diplomatic vehicle. 

When I toured Haiti in 1988 I turned the trip into a Graham Greene pilgrimage.  I even stayed in the Trianon Hotel (Hotel Oloffson in real life) with "gables and balconies and towers, the fantastic nineteenth-century architecture of Port-au-Prince." I requested and received the Graham Greene Suite and even enjoyed visits to the hotel bar where I met Petite Pierre -- both a character in "The Comedians" and a real-life person. 

Since Greene is not clear about the South American country Ambassador Pineda represented, I drove by both the Paraguayan and Uruguayan ambassadors' residences.  But, lacking in my pilgrimage was a sighting of the Columbus statue. I knew that during the 1986 popular uprising against Duvalier’s son, Baby Doc, a crowd had toppled Columbus' statue and rolled it into the bay chanting "He came from the sea.  Let him go back to the sea." Haiti's next head of state, General Henri Namphy, had divers pull Columbus out of the muck, and hid the statue away. 

When I went to Haiti only the pedestal was in place.  I asked the hotel owner/manager if he knew where the statue was. He didn't. Knowing I was the unusual tourist who had rented a car, he tried to drum up some business for his hotel taxi drivers saying, "Hire one of my drivers.  They’ll know where it is." 

"If one of them knows, I'll hire him," I replied. 

One by one the drivers were called into the lobby. They each admitted not knowing where the statue was.

Eventually, my small group and I set off on our own.  We went to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) and found a city official who spoke Spanish.  He told us he knew where the statue was but would only reveal its location with permission from the mayor. He suggested we return the following day. 

On our way down the front steps of City Hall I spotted some Tontons Macoute wearing their signature dark glasses.  I asked one of them if he knew where the Columbus statue was.  "Of course" he replied and led us into the basement.  There was Columbus behind a row of wheelbarrows, down on one knee with a broken outstretched arm, a cigarette stuck in his mouth.

Fuentes is right—sometimes real life is crazier than fiction.

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