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Seeds of Fiction
Graham Greene's Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954â"1983
By Bernard Diederich
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2012 Bernard Diederich
All rights reserved.
SEEDS OF FICTION
In Haiti they say life begins long before birth and that death is not an end but a continuation of the same long coil threading back to the beginning. The story of Haiti is certainly tragic, but unlike a work of fiction it has no end. It continues today with misery pouring down on a proud and independent people. The everyday Haitian's answer to violence, poverty, sickness and death is always the same: bon Die sel ki kone, only God knows. They say it with a hopeful frown and an uncertain smile. And while they speak of God — Catholicism and Christianity are prevalent in Haiti — it is Voodoo that offers the people hope; it offers them immortality. This is the magic of Voodoo. It's also the power of great fiction. It can immortalize a character, a story or a deep truth. This is why, on an overcast afternoon in January 1965, I found myself standing by the arrival gate at Santo Domingo's Las Americas airport waiting for Graham Greene.
I wanted Graham to write a book about Haiti. Like many Haitians I was at war against the dictatorship of François 'Papa Doc' Duvalier. Two years earlier I had been forced into exile with my Haitian wife, Ginette, and our infant son after living in Haiti for almost fourteen years. My first seven years in Haiti were full of the magic that some like to call the old Haiti. It was a time when the country was experiencing a cultural renaissance. There was virtually no crime. While the deforestation and over-population was noticeable, it wasn't nearly as extreme as it is today. It was a clean, charming place populated with beautiful and interesting people. There was something intimate and exotic about Haiti. It was a popular tourist destination, particularly with artists, bohemians and the Hollywood set, which is how I came to meet Graham in the first place. Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft and Truman Capote all visited the island during this time.
En route to the South Pacific I had sailed into Port-au-Prince, quit the sea to search for my stolen camera, fallen in love with Haiti and, after a short stint working at an American-owned casino, started an English-language weekly newspaper, the Haiti Sun, in 1950. Soon I picked up stringing work from the US and British media. Between the late 1940s and the mid-1950s Haiti possessed more than hope and charm: it had magic.
But the last seven years had been a horrible nightmare. In 1957, after Duvalier won the presidency, the country slowly descended into a state of fear as Papa Doc tightened his grip on power and declared himself President-for-Life. Many of my friends and colleagues were killed or disappeared. While I was busy reporting on the atrocities for the international media, I had to be careful of what I published in my own paper. I had to avoid the attention of Duvalier and his henchmen, the Tontons Macoutes. Whenever the government censors blinked I would telex or cable my stories, which were published, many times anonymously, in Time, Life, the New York Times, on NBC News and in the Associated Press. For seven years I walked a fine line, knowing that if Papa Doc found out I had written something critical I was certain to join the growing ranks of the 'disappeared'.
As I watched Graham's tall, lean figure make its way through customs, his blue eyes cutting across the airport with a hint of suspicion, I wondered if, indeed, he had the power to change Haiti. Could he bring down Duvalier? And, more to the point, would he write a book about Haiti?
Graham was sixty-one. His hair was thinning slightly, but he looked as robust as ever. He was dressed in tan linen trousers and a dark coat. His pale complexion stood out from the crowd of tourists and Dominican nationals arriving on the Pan American flight from Canada, where he had spent Christmas with his daughter Caroline.
We didn't need to shake hands: a smile sufficed. As he thanked me generously for meeting him, I could feel his energy. He was so eager at the prospect of our trip he was giddy with excitement.
'It's wonderful to be back in the Caribbean,' he said when he came out of customs. Then he took me by the arm. 'I hope I'm not keeping you from your work.'
'No, not at all,' I replied.
He seemed to forget I had been the one to suggest we take a trip along the Haitian — Dominican border. He stopped, and now he smiled at me again and slapped me on the back of the shoulder as we walked out of the airport. 'So when do we start?'
Hearing Graham talk this way, overflowing with enthusiasm, thrilled me. I had last seen him in August 1963. The British Ambassador in Santo Domingo had telephoned me with a message from Greene. He was coming to the Dominican Republic from Haiti and wanted to know if I could pick him up at the airport. I was taken by surprise. I hadn't seen Graham since we spent a week together in Haiti in 1956. I never imagined we would cross paths again.
The Graham Greene I'd met in 1963 looked frazzled and slightly unkempt. He arrived with little luggage and a painting by Philippe-Auguste, which he said he had purchased with his winnings from a night at a deserted casino in Port-au-Prince. He was unusually quiet and let out a deep sigh as he squeezed into the seat of my Volkswagen Beetle. It was clear he was relieved to be out of Haiti. As we drove out of the airport he rested his arm out the window and took in the smell of the summer rains and the burning charcoal from the cooking fires of the neighbourhood colmados.
'I thought I was doomed to stay,' he said after a long silence. His face was stark and serious. He didn't look at me; instead he stared blankly at the blue of the Caribbean as we drove along Autopista Las Américas.
'I felt something was going to happen. I was so sure of it. I thought I'd be stopped at the last minute. And just as I was about to board the plane someone pressed a letter into my hand and whispered, "Please, give this to Déjoie in Santo Domingo." I was afraid it could be a trap; perhaps a provocateur. I refused.' He looked at me and tightened his grip on the bag he had on his lap. I understood. The risk was too great. He was concerned about his notes. 'You think I did the right thing?'
'I'm certain of it,' I said. Louis Déjoie had lost the presidential election to Papa Doc in 1957. Like most of Duvalier's opponents he ended up in exile in the Dominican Republic where he was trying to position himself as the leader of the Haitian exile community. But the former senator had no support among the exiles. He was alone. All he could do was continually to denounce the exile groups as Communist. At one point he got us all arrested.
Graham said he had gone back to Haiti on assignment for the London Sunday Telegraph. He had been reading stories of the growing terror in Haiti and wanted to see it for himself. 'I had a hunch the exiles might launch an attack on Duvalier from the Dominican Republic,' he said. The promise of action had lured him back to the island.
I didn't tell Graham that I had been keeping track of his visit to Haiti. Diplomat friends returning from visiting Port-au-Prince always brought me a bundle of Haitian newspapers. Aubelin Jolicoeur's column 'Au Fil des Jours' ('As the Days Go By') in Le Nouvelliste, of 13 August 1963, read, 'The great writer Graham Greene is here to write an article on Haiti for the Telegraph of London. One of the greatest writers in the world, Graham Greene was welcomed to Haiti by the chargé d'affaires of Great Britain, Mr Patrick Niblock, and Aubelin Jolicoeur.' Jolicoeur had worked for my newspaper in the 1950s. Modesty was not one of his qualities. He was a fixture at the Grand Hotel Oloffson and became Greene's real-life model for the character of Petit Pierre in The Comedians. Graham's physical description in the novel was dead on: 'Even the time of day was humorous to him. He had the quick movements of a monkey, and he seemed to swing from wall to wall on ropes of laughter.' But it was his assessment of who Petit Pierre really was that was telling: 'He was believed by some to have connexions with the Tontons, for how otherwise had he escaped a beating-up or worse?' Years later Graham confessed to me he always suspected Jolicoeur was a spy for Duvalier. I never believed that. Like many Haitians he was a survivor. What other option did he have?
After listing Graham's published works Jolicoeur noted, 'This is Mr Greene's third visit to Haiti and he will spend ten days at the Hotel Oloffson. He has expressed a desire to meet Dr François Duvalier. We wish the author of The Power and the Glory, considered a great work, welcome.'
I dropped Graham off at the British Ambassador's residence. The following evening he came to our home in Rosa Duarte for dinner. I had also invited Max Clos, of Le Figaro, who had covered the war in Indochina at the same time as Graham and who had been on a reporting trip to Haiti.
That night Graham behaved in a way that was completely out of character. He began acting, mimicking Papa Doc's Foreign Minister. I had known him to be reserved, direct, quiet. I had never seen him this animated. He displayed a wonderful sense of mimicry.
'No interview is possible,' he said, playing the part of Haitian Foreign Minister René Chalmers. 'I regret, Monsieur Greene, the President is not receiving the foreign press at this time.' He nailed the accent perfectly. 'You know Chalmers,' he laughed. 'He's this huge frog-like man who sits behind his desk at the end of a long, narrow room and closes his eyes as he speaks.' Then he went on mimicking the minister. 'Ah, Monsieur Greene, it is not possible at this time to travel to the north. It is for your own safety, you understand. If safety considerations are to be taken into account every time a journalist covers a story, there would be no coverage whatsoever.' Coverage, we both knew, was precisely what Duvalier didn't want.
Chalmers claimed there were no longer rebels in the north and that Graham would do better to travel to Les Cayes in the south. 'As I left,' Graham explained, 'his aide told me Chalmers was very busy preparing a protest to the United Nations General Assembly because the exiled former Chief of Staff, General Leon Cantave, had led an invasion in the north with American arms.'
But even with the Foreign Minister's official blessing, Graham still had to obtain a laissez-passer (official pass) to travel south from Port-au-Prince. Roadblocks were everywhere. To get his laissez-passer he was instructed to go to the police headquarters at the new Caserne François Duvalier, opposite the National Palace. The long wait, Graham recalled, was a goldmine. It gave him a close-up look at Duvalier's repressive machine. He sat there for hours watching character after character, including a police officer who stared at him through large mirrored sunglasses. Graham was not sure of the man's name, but he could have been any of a number of Macoute officers. They had all taken to wearing dark glasses to appear tough and sinister. From his description, though, it sounded like Colonel Franck Romain, a hot-tempered officer who later became police chief and mayor of Port-au-Prince.
Graham said the stench at the station was so intense it was like sitting inside a urinal. On one of the walls, beside a large official portrait of Duvalier, were pictures of the bullet-riddled corpses of former spy chief and creator of the Tontons Macoutes Clément Barbot and his brother Harry. Both men had been killed four weeks earlier, ending a two-month war with Papa Doc. They were flushed out of a hut on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and cornered in a sugar-cane field where they were killed by Duvalier's security forces. Afterwards a photographer was brought in to capture the bloody corpses on film.
Beyond the close-up look at the Macoutes and police, his experience at the police was fictionalized in The Comedians in the scene when Brown goes to get a pass to travel south. 'A pass to Aux Cayes cost so many hours of waiting, that was all, in the smell of the zoo, under the snapshots of the dead rebels, in the steam of the stove-like day.'
On his 1963 visit Graham stayed at the Grand Hotel Oloffson. But the Haiti he encountered bore little resemblance to the land that charmed him seven years earlier when he visited Catherine Walston. Roger and Laura Coster, the former managers of the Oloffson, were long gone. Sensing that politics were going to kill tourism, Roger sold his lease on the hotel in 1960 and decamped to the US Virgin Islands where he went into business with New York restaurateur Vincent Sardi. Al Seitz, an American who had come to Port-au-Prince to help run La Belle Creole department store, now ran the Oloffson. Seitz hired a Macoute for protection. It was the thing to do for many of those who could afford it. Seitz disliked newsmen; he bemoaned their stories as overblown, frightening the tourists away.
When I met Graham in 1956 he was staying at the upmarket El Rancho Hotel with Walston. I tried to convince them to move to the Oloffson, but Graham said he was a guest of Albert Silvera, the owner of El Rancho, and didn't want to hurt his feelings by moving to another hotel. But after I took them to the old gingerbread-style palace overlooking Port-au-Prince and introduced them to Coster, they needed no more encouragement. They left El Rancho and spent their last two days in Haiti at the Oloffson where Graham discovered the little barman, Caesar, who made the world's best rum punches.
When I first arrived in the country in 1949 I lived in the Oloffson, but after a month I surrendered my room to the termites, certain the place would soon turn to sawdust. The old gingerbread structure, built in 1887 as a villa for the son of Haitian President Tirésias Simon Sam, possessed incredible charm. It was a three-storey wooden structure built on to the side of the hill with two turrets at the end of the façade. The main floor of the hotel had a huge mahogany bar and a long, wide veranda which served as an elevated dining-room. Eight tall doors led into the hotel, the back wall of which was the exposed stone of the mountain. From the top floors one could see the treetops, rusty metal roofs and the bay of Port-au-Prince in the distance and until the devastating 2010 earthquake the three white domes of the National Palace.
The suite Graham and Catherine occupied became the Graham Greene Suite. Neighbouring suites were also named, hung with ornate painted nameplates of other poets and writers and famous guests who had slept there, among them the actor John Gielgud, director Peter Glenville and Anne Bancroft.
Graham introduces readers to the Hotel Trianon in The Comedians:
The architecture of the hotel was neither classical in the eighteenth-century manner nor luxurious in the twentieth-century fashion. With its towers and balconies and wooden fretwork decorations it had the air at night of a Charles Addams house in a number of the New Yorker. You expected a witch to open the door to you or a maniac butler, with a bat dangling from the chandelier behind him. But in the sunlight, or when the lights went on among the palms, it seemed fragile and period and pretty and absurd, an illustration from a book of fairy-tales. I had grown to love the place, and I was glad in a way that it had found no purchaser.
On his trip in 1963 Graham found the rambling old hotel virtually empty. He said there were only three other guests: the Italian manager of the International Casino and an elderly American couple who had taken up extended residence at the hotel. He considered they were somewhat naïve but sincere people trying to help Haitian artists learn the silk-screen process so they could reproduce their paintings and increase their income. He thought the couple's endeavour was a noble one, if not terribly credible. Their effort ultimately came to halt because the Haitian Consul-General in New York failed to keep his promise to cut the red tape in Haiti and facilitate the import of raw material and to have the appropriate government ministry give the couple permission to work in Haiti. They were completely ignored by Duvalier's officials. This scenario at the Oloffson closely resembles the scene Graham created at the Trianon with only Brown and Mr and Mrs Smith staying at the hotel.
This time around Graham did not stay in the suite that had been named after him. Instead, he lodged at the little cottage in the grounds in front of the main hotel building known as the James Jones cottage. The author of From Here to Eternity had spent his honeymoon there after marrying Gloria Mosolino, a one-time stand-in for actresses Marilyn Monroe and Eva Marie Saint.
Although he was a guest at the Oloffson, in the afternoons when government offices closed and the Oloffson became too eerie Graham dropped by the Sans Souci Hotel to relax and take notes under the big caimite tree next to the pool at the back of the hotel. The manager of the Sans Souci could be trusted as he was no pro-Duvalier. The place offered peace and quiet and gave Graham a chance to discuss the political story with foreign correspondents of the daily press.
Excerpted from Seeds of Fiction by Bernard Diederich. Copyright © 2012 Bernard Diederich. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations 9
Foreword by Pico Iyer: 'Greene in the World' 11
Introduction Richard Greene 15
Map of Hispaniola 18
Part I Graham Greene in Haiti
Seeds of Fiction 21
A Quixotic Insurgency 32
Loving Haiti 47
A River of Blood 56
The Poetry of Faith 65
A Matter of Policy 75
Blood in the Streets 96
The Comedians 102
Papa Doc Reacts to The Comedians 114
After Papa Doc 138
Part II On the Way Back: Graham Greene in Central America
A Dictator with a Difference 153
The Years Pass 164
Rendezvous on a Pearl Island 168
Getting to Know Chuchu 179
Greene Goes to Washington 188
Fair Wind for the Isthmus 191
Operation Sir Francis Drake 202
Waiting for the Guerrilla 214
Our Man in Panama 225
Managua Nights 232
The General Is Dead! 247
Greene's Other War 257
A Night in Havana 265
Master of Contradiction 270
We'll Meet Again 275
What People are Saying About This
"This is a perfect match of subject and author. Bernie Diederich has captured the passion for journalism and politics that made his friend Graham Greene such a powerful novelist." —Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs
"This is a book fifty years in the making...anyone interested in the life and work of Greene will find it full of new insights." - America
"One of the finest books yet written on Greene—a triumph of tender recollection and devotion." —The Spectator