On regular visits to the Caribbean, Graham Greene mixed with Sandinista comandantes, El Salvadoran rebels and strongmen like Fidel Castro. So writes Bernard Diederich in his new book Seeds of Fiction, reviewed here by Roger Lowenstein for The Wall Street Journal.
No one wrote with more economy, wit and prescience about the backyards of colonialism than Graham Greene. Bernard Diederich’s memoir of his rum-soaked travels with Greene in the Caribbean and Central America, “Seeds of Fiction,” breaches the walls protecting Greene’s detached persona and gives us the novelist at unguarded moments. Among other aspects of Greene’s soul, Mr. Diederich probes the writer’s jaundiced feelings toward the American government and his disquieting habit of falling for decidedly anti-American revolutionaries and, yes, dictators.
A bit of a legend himself, Mr. Diederich, born in New Zealand in 1926, found his way to Port-au-Prince in 1949, where he worked at a casino and founded a newspaper, the Haiti Sun. He reveled in his paradise until François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier was elected president of Haiti in 1957 and unleashed a reign of terror. Mr. Diederich was himself arrested, thrown into solitary and expelled. (He would go on to become a correspondent for Time magazine.)
A few years later, Mr. Diederich had a fanciful idea: Why not invite back to the Caribbean a certain English novelist whom Mr. Diederich had met in Haiti in the mid-1950s and lure him into writing a novel? If anyone could get the world to pay attention to Duvalier’s horrors, it would be Graham Greene. The result, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart, was a beautiful friendship.
After a trek along Haiti’s treacherous border with the Dominican Republic, Greene went on to the write “The Comedians” (1966), a brilliant novel that so lacerated the Duvalier regime that Papa Doc claimed, as if stitching a Greene plot of his own, that Greene was part of a CIA conspiracy to destroy him.
With the Haiti novel published, Mr. Diederich feared that the friendship had lost its purpose, but Greene wrote him to say “how much I enjoyed our time together.” Their sojourns in the Americas became a regular event as they mixed, and drank, with Sandinista comandantes, El Salvadoran rebels, Fidel Castro and the Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos. Greene’s relationship with Torrijos led to one of his least satisfying books, “Getting to Know the General” (1984), a fawning tribute to a leader who achieved a predictable celebrity in the 1970s for demanding that the U.S. forsake control of the Canal Zone.
Greene, however, was no parlor critic; he learned the local territory better than most of the journalists, and throughout Mr. Diederich’s memoir we see him in the flesh, gathering material on backroads crowded with chickens and donkeys, fretting over his work, on the prowl for well-mixed rum. A novelist, Greene asserts, must be engaged—not “academic” but “emotionally involved.” The Greene that emerges here is angry over Washington’s incursions into Central America but also aghast at the cruelty of leftist guerrillas. He does not believe in hell, he says, only “purgatory,” which presumably includes his tortured existence.
Norman Sherry, who wrote a compelling three-volume biography of Greene, was more objective than Mr. Diederich, who admits to being in awe of his subject. Mr. Sherry was also a better writer. But Mr. Diederich delivers a Greene with a human factor. He visits the writer in his lair on the French Riviera, not long before his death at 86 in 1991, and finds a “very ordinary middle-class bachelor pad” whose occupant is still touchingly involved with his longtime French companion.
And Mr. Diederich repeatedly shows us Greene in action and eager—almost desperate—for adventure. Trekking along the Haitian border, just out of range of Duvalier’s soldiers, Greene chortles, “Perhaps we’ll provoke him a little.” When Greene and Mr. Diederich go searching for the spot off Panama’s coast where the casket of Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea, Greene is as excited as a schoolboy. “I feel vibes,” he chirps. “Drake is near.” (Actually, he isn’t.) Of the 16th-century sea captain’s hijacking of Spanish gold, Greene has a character in one of novels observe: “A little honest thieving harms no one.”
English imperialists get a pardon; America, “a bully in the north,” does not. Greene thought America “obsessed with Fidel”; he was hardly wrong, but the bitterness feels extreme, almost personal. In a pique against Ronald Reagan for helping the anti-Sandinista rebels, Greene writes to Mr. Diederich: “Russia and the USA seem to be the same face looking at each other.”
Mr. Diederich acknowledges Greene’s anti-Americanism but charitably sums up his politics as “sympathy for the underdog.” Greene did not set novels in Prague or East Berlin, and in the Americas he could tailor his convictions to romantic illusions about the left. To his credit, when confronted with the face of terror, he drops them. In 1980, Greene tried valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to negotiate the release of a kidnapped South African ambassador in El Salvador. Sizing up the chief kidnapper, who appears in Greene’s hotel room in Panama, Greene tells Mr. Diederich: “His eyes are hard. I wouldn’t like to be his prisoner.”
Yet he is coyly understanding toward his former boss in British intelligence, (Greene briefly served in MI6)—the Soviet double agent Kim Philby, whom he visits in Russia. Greene tells Mr. Diederich that, had he known of Philby’s treason, he would have given him 24 hours—a “sporting” chance—before turning him in, as if the Cold War were just a rich plot. A Haitian critic says, “Greene is haunted by spies.” It is the entanglement of espionage he savors, the mission that vanquishes boredom. Boredom once drove him to play Russian roulette—he survived four spins of the chamber. Even Fidel Castro was impressed with Greene’s nerve: “According to the probabilities,” Mr. Castro murmurs, “you should be dead.”
The writers with lives as eventful as their novels are fast disappearing. Mr. Diederich, in this lumpy but affecting memoir, has shown us one of Greene’s best characters—himself.
—Mr. Lowenstein, the author of “The End of Wall Street,” covered the Caribbean for the Journal in the 1980s.
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