Fond rec­ol­lec­tions of a giv­ing Greene

Seeds of Fic­tion: Gra­ham Greene’s Ad­ven­tures in Haiti and Cen­tral Amer­ica 1954-1983

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ian Thom­son The Spec­ta­tor

By Bernard Diederich. With a fore­word by Pico Iyer and an in­tro­duc­tion by Richard Greene Peter Owen Pub­lish­ers, 350pp, $39.99 (HB)

BY any stan­dards, Haiti rep­re­sents a great con­cen­tra­tion of mis­ery and dashed hopes. From the air, the Caribbean repub­lic is a sun-scorched clinker; de­for­esta­tion, caused by a ru­inous cut­ting of tim­ber for char­coal, has de­stroyed much of the green. Since in­de­pen­dence in 1804, more­over, a suc­ces­sion of em­per­ors, kings and pres­i­dents-for-life has con­trived to in­stil ter­ror in the peo­ple.

Fran­cois ‘‘ Papa Doc’’ Du­va­lier, dic­ta­tor of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, en­ter­tained more than an an­thro­po­log­i­cal in­ter­est in AfroCaribbean sor­cery rit­u­als. His wardrobe of black suits and black hom­burgs lent him the as­pect, writes Bernard Diederich, of the voodoo di­vin­ity Baron Samedi, who haunts the church­yards in a top hat and tails like a ghoul­ish Grou­cho Marx. (James Bond en­coun­ters an Amer­i­can ver­sion of Baron Samedi in the hench­man of Live and Let Die’s das­tardly Mr Big, chair­man of the New York­based Black Widow Cult.)

The Haitian dic­ta­tor’s son, Jean-Claude ‘‘ Baby Doc’’ Du­va­lier, was no less bizarre. On Novem­ber 5, 2002, hop­ing to in­ter­view him, I di­alled his num­ber from my home in Lon­don. The in­stant he picked up his phone in the south of France, a neigh­bour let off fire­works be­neath my win­dow, and he hung up. Diederich, a for­mer Time mag­a­zine jour­nal­ist, has also tried but failed to in­ter­view Du­va­lier Jr. A se­ries of po­lit­i­cal con­vul­sions — at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tions, bomb plots — has fol­lowed the pres­i­dent’s ex­pul­sion from Haiti in 1986 and no doubt he still sees jour­nal­ists as part of a larger threat.

By an irony, Baby Doc lived near Gra­ham Greene in An­tibes; Greene, of course, had de­liv­ered a with­er­ing at­tack on the Du­va­lier tyranny in his Haitian novel The Co­me­di­ans. In 1968, by way of re­tal­i­a­tion, Papa Doc is­sued a pam­phlet en­ti­tled Gra­ham Greene — Fi­nally Ex­posed, in which he sought to dis­credit the nov­el­ist as, among other things, a ‘‘ ben­zedrin addict’’ and ‘‘ habitue of leper houses’’ (the ob­ser­va­tions were not far wrong).

Diederich, a New Zealand-born Catholic, had by that time known Greene for 15 years, hav­ing first met him in Haiti in the mid-1950s. Their friend­ship took root im­me­di­ately, it seems, and con­tin­ued for 37 years un­til Greene’s death in 1991, at the age of 86.

Seeds of Fic­tion, Diederich’s long-awaited mem­oir of Greene, con­cen­trates on the Haiti years, when the Caribbean out­post was pa­tro­n­ised by the likes of Tru­man Capote and Noel Coward. Dur­ing his vis­its to the Haitian cap­i­tal of Port-au-Prince, Greene stayed at the Ho­tel Oloff­son, a gin­ger­bread man­sion dis­guised as the Ho­tel Tri­anon in The Co­me­di­ans.

Diederich was mar­ried to a Haitian and knew Haiti in­ti­mately. The English lan­guage news­pa­per he edited in Port-au-Prince, the Haiti Sun, was known for its anti-Du­va­lierist stance. Through Diederich, Greene was able to meet a num­ber of Haitian no­ta­bles.

Among them was the gossip colum­nist Aube­lin Jolicoeur (lit­er­ally, Lit­tle Dawn Pretty Heart), who ap­pears as the fop­pish Petit Pierre in Greene’s 1966 novel. Mod­esty was not one of Jolicoeur’s ‘‘ strong points’’, Diederich re­minds us. An elfin fig­ure, he rou­tinely ap­peared at the Oloff­son’s bar dressed in a white suit and pais­ley as­cot, dap­per be­yond re­al­ity.

In his obituary of Greene for The Guardian, Jolicoeur out­did even him­self: ‘‘ I was grate­ful to Gra­ham to have en­hanced my le­gend to such an ex­tent that some fans kneel at my feet or kiss my hand in meet­ing a man liv­ing his own le­gend.’’ (Jolicoeur died in 2005, pos­si­bly of Alzheimer’s dis­ease, in a Port-auPrince room­ing house.)

Like many of his gen­er­a­tion, Greene was punc­til­ious in an­swer­ing his let­ters (in old age he re­ceived an aver­age of 180 a month). From his cor­re­spon­dence with Diederich, pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished, we learn much about his plea­sures, foibles and, above all, gen­eros­ity. Con­cerned that the aca­demic de­tail in Diederich’s book on So­moza would fa­tally hin­der sales, Greene sug­gested sub­stan­tial cuts. (‘‘Please don’t be dis­cour­aged by my crit­i­cisms.’’)

Seeds of Fic­tion is in­tended, partly, as a ri­poste to Nor­man Sherry and other ‘‘ dirty linen’’ bi­og­ra­phers who have sought to ex­pose a darker shade of Greene and, in con­se­quence, lost sight of Greene the man. Through­out, Diederich com­mends the ‘‘ pixie sense of hu­mour’’ in Greene and his fas­ci­na­tion with what lay out­side his class and cul­ture (‘‘There must be a brothel where we at least can get a cold drink,’’ Greene typ­i­cally gripes in Haiti.)

In pages of mes­meric de­tail, Diederich chron­i­cles Greene’s friend­ship with the Pana­ma­nian strong­man Gen­eral Tor­ri­jos, as well as his trav­els around ru­ral Nicaragua with the San­din­istas in the early 80s. In an es­pe­cially poignant scene, Greene is de­scribed as im­mersed in The Let­ters of Eve­lyn Waugh (edited by Mark Amory) while alone in a Panama City ho­tel. Among Catholic writ­ers, per­haps only Waugh won Greene’s un­stint­ing ad­mi­ra­tion and love; his death in 1966 was dev­as­tat­ing to Greene.

In 2004, ac­com­pa­nied by the Haitian pho­tog­ra­pher Noelle Theard, I called on Diederich at his home in Mi­ami. Diederich, a griz­zled, whiskery pres­ence, told us of his in­ten­tion to write a book on Greene. (‘‘I haven’t shown a sin­gle one of the let­ters to Sherry,’’ he growled.) The re­sult, Seeds of Fic­tion, is one of the finest books yet writ­ten on Greene — a tri­umph of ten­der rec­ol­lec­tion and de­vo­tion.

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