© 2008 William Ahearn
Just after dawn I was sitting outside on the open patio of a small hotel in Pétionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, sipping my coffee and eating toast made from the local bread that is served with mango slices. Some mornings I’m up early due to the rooster that lives just outside my room and beyond the high walls whose tops have broken glass formed into the concrete and strands of concertina wire running above it. This morning I am up early because of the gunfire during the night. There is always sporadic gunfire these days but rarely is it so close. My room isn’t in the hotel proper but in a small building further from the road and the gates of the main building. Across the hall from me lives someone attached to the security of the UN officers. He’s from Ghana and educated at John Jay college and he stayed in his room when the shots rang out while the others – French and Canadians with short hair and vague job descriptions – milled about in the hall with me wondering whether this was a serious situation or some personal vendetta being carried out in the dead of night.
It is November 1996 – long after the rainy season – and the United Nations is either bringing a government back in or taking one out. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track. For some reason the US state department lifted the travel ban to Haiti while I was in south Florida visiting relatives and when the window opened I dove through. In those days there was a bar at the Miami airport called Amnesia and the night before my morning flight I was having a couple of Jack Blacks with a beer back and the bartender came over since it was slow and asked “where are you off to?” I told him and after I told him I had no business going to Haiti that I was just going because I always wanted to go, he filled a glass with Jack Daniel’s and said, “that one’s on me because you are one crazy fucker.”
Maybe he was right. That isn’t what I was thinking drinking that Haitian coffee that morning. Some things stay with you about places. The list in Haiti is long and near the top of the list is the voice-of-god coffee. Damn it’s good and I have never found it brewed right anywhere off the island. So I’m sitting on the patio and noticing that the pool is full of crystal clear water and nothing else when I hear that unmistakable sound. It’s the deep bass whoop-whoop-whoop of a US-made UH-1 “Huey” helicopter – the kind used extensively in the Vietnam war and made even more famous by Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” – and the chopper painted white with “U.N.” stenciled in black on its body is so close that I can see the grim faces of the Pakistani troops through the open slide door as it zooms past searching for some poor bastards running through the bald hills.
Watching as it passes, I put my cup back on the saucer and say aloud but to myself, “goddamn you, Graham Greene.”
Everybody not from Haiti in Haiti right now has a reason to be here but me. There isn’t another tourist on this side of the island. The flight from Miami was filled with military advisors, missionaries, intelligence people, UN staff, or someone connected to an embassy. The question everyone asks me is “Who are you working for?” One night in a bar I had a conversation with a Frenchmen who asked me that question. When I told him I had no affiliations, that I always wanted to see Haiti and I was in south Florida with cash and time so I came when the travel ban was lifted, he ordered two double Barbancourt rums and we went to a table where he explained he didn’t care who I was or what I was doing it was that he wanted to know who the players were “just in case.” There was a temptation to blurt out that I was Mr. Smith, the vegetarian candidate for the US presidency. I stifled it and walked home in the dark to my hotel with that amazing rum playing tricks with my feet.
There is a darkness in the third world that never seems to assert itself in a world where everyone has cars and jobs and a reason to go somewhere. In Haiti, the light bulbs have a yellow glow to them and their influence is daunted by the darkness that slaps the light down as it tries to spread into the night. It’s almost as if Henri Rousseau ran the electric company. So I walked back to the hotel as I walked everywhere. As a native New Yorker, I learn a city by its streets and its people. It never occurred to me that this was dangerous or insane. On my way back to the hotel, I passed a group of men sitting near the entrance of a store that offered “divers” and sundries. They might have been out in the street at that time because they were sleeping in the beds in shifts or because of the heat or for any number of reasons I’ll never know. What implanted them in my memory was an abject sense of fear in their eyes and there’s no other word for it. Having spent a lifetime in places I shouldn’t be I know when I should hit the bricks running. This wasn’t one of those times.
Maybe it was crazy to go to Haiti. Even at the best of times it would be a difficult place. The poverty and despair are overwhelming and the presence of the UN military rumbling through the market places and parks seemed exciting at first. The excitement and romance loses its luster when real people lose real blood and real lives are lost in a Caribbean backwater that no one really gives a damn about and is unlikely to get better any time soon.
The Oloffson Hotel, the gingerbread house-looking structure on a hill above Port-au-Prince that was the model for the Hotel Trianon in The Comedians, is still there and – so the story goes – is the man that became Petit Pierre in the book. The Duvaliers are gone and the Tonton Macoutes have been disbanded. There’s been a succession of governments, coups, and the UN peacekeeping forces arriving to put in or take out another president. As the French would say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Almost fifty years ago Greene noted in The Comedians:
“Port-au-Prince was a very different place a few years ago. It was, I suppose, just as corrupt; it was even dirtier; it contained as many beggars, but at least the beggars had hope, for the tourists were there. Now when a man says to you, ‘I am starving,’ you believe him.”
The tourists are long gone now and people are still starving and finding hope where they can. One afternoon I went with Jean Paul, the taxi driver I met at the airport, to see the Oloffson Hotel. Jean Paul was a squat and solid man who drove an old dented Datsun that had had its back seat ripped out and the space filled with blankets and car parts and who-knows-what-else. One passenger side window rattled and shook as he drove and had to be coaxed open with a knobless handle. We were stuck for an hour in downtown Port-au-Prince not far from the Iron Works when the engine heaved and sighed and died. Other taxi drivers and strangers and people from the street gathered around to help and the engine was revived as the tap-tap buses rattled through the crowded streets.
We stood on the green lawn of the Oloffson and smoked and chatted. The hotel that had always named its rooms after celebrities now had a room named for Graham Greene. I explained to Jean Paul how Greene’s novel had begun a fascination with Haiti for me. He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You came to Haiti because of a book?”
Jean Paul was one of the people that I thought about while watching Peter Glenville’s 1967 production of Graham Greene’s The Comedians. The film varies from the novel and since Greene wrote the screenplay, I’ll assume the changes and choices were his and leave it at that. Papa Doc Duvalier responded to The Comedians by attacking Greene in a government-sponsored publication and banning him and all his books from Haiti. In Ways of Escape, Greene noted that it was the only review he received from a head of state and that Duvalier called him, “a liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon . . . unbalanced, sadistic, perverted . . . a spy … a drug addict” and numerous other things. So when the film went into production it was in Benin (formerly Dahomey) and not Haiti and that makes sense, as Haiti seems to be more of an African country than a Caribbean one.
There is one element that writing couldn’t change, or the cinematography by Henri Dacaë couldn’t create, and that is the sense of claustrophobia in a city such as Port-au-Prince or the hills and mountains of the countryside. But that is a nit not worth picking. “The Comedians” isn’t a particularly good film and it while would be tempting to blame it on the duo of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the director, Peter Glenville, had previously worked with Burton in “Becket” (1964) so one would expect that the kind of friction that occurs on sets didn’t happen in this case. The sparks and passion that Liz and Dick exhibited in Mike Nichol’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1966) aren’t anywhere in sight. The film fails for any number of reasons and a talky and over-long script and pedestrian direction seems to be just as responsible as anything else.