Seeds of Fiction: Graham Greene’s Adventures in Haiti and Central America, 1954-1983
US: Feb 2013
To say that British author Graham Greene is one of the 20th century’s most powerful writers would be a grand understatement. Greene, naturally, was responsible for some of the century’s most defining fiction, from Brighton Rock to The Power and the Glory to The End of the Affair to The Quiet American to The Heart of the Matter. It seemed that masterpiece after masterpiece flowed from this author’s pen.
However, he was also a bit of a cool dude, from most accounts. In the ‘30s, a film review written by Greene about a Shirley Temple movie, noting that it appealed to “middle-aged men and clergymen”, got the magazine he was writing for sued, a move that prompted Greene to flee to Mexico and come up with what is arguably his best novel, The Power and the Glory. In the ‘50s, Green presaged the US’s involvement in Vietnam by about a decade through The Quiet American, which resulted in American intelligence shadowing the author until his death in 1991.
So Greene was quite the colourful character, which makes his latest quasi-biography, Seeds of Fiction, which details Greene’s travels in and around Haiti and Panama in the ‘60s and ‘70s – trips that would purportedly inspire the novel The Comedians and the non-fiction account, Getting to Know the General, about Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos – all the more disappointing. Very little of that colour comes out in Time reporter Bernard Diederich’s account of Greene’s journeys to the region, at least until the final chapter, which sees the intrepid reporter paying a visit to Greene’s home in Europe.
The full title of the book is a bit of a misnomer. It’s called Seeds of Fiction, despite the fact that the book details, in part, the aforementioned creation of a non-fiction book by Greene, and it purports to be an account of his time in Haiti with Diederich, a friend of Greene’s, although Greene only toured the Haitian-Dominican Republic border in 1965, and he never really set foot in Haiti during this sojourn, except when the border roads snaked into Haitian territory in the back country.
Also, the book notes that it covers the period between 1954 and 1983, but really, the book is largely centred on Greene’s 1965 trip to the Haiti-Dominican border and his involvement in the late ‘70s in Panama. The word “adventures” also appears in the subtitle, and that, too, is a bit inaccurate, unless you call getting a flat tire on the border roads of the Dominican Republic an “adventure”. So, caveat emptor.
There are some fleeting moments in Seeds of Fiction where Dietrich opens up about his feelings about Greene. We learn that Greene is particularly paranoid during the 1965 trip, seeing enemy agents in the shadows of the rutted tracks the duo (well, actually a trio as an exiled Haitian priest is in the backseat – who doesn’t talk much and offers very little to this dull narrative) is traveling on by Volkswagen, though it usually turns out to be a chicken in the middle of the road.
And we learn that Greene might have not been on quite the same page as his impoverished subjects, which would seem odd given Greene’s stature as a chronicler of the human condition. After Greene comments at one point during his 1965 “Haiti trip” about how he would be dining in a few days at a swank Paris restaurant, Diederich writes, “His comment angered me, but I said nothing… For the past three months I had been transporting sacks of grain, flour and tins of oil from the Catholic Relief and CARE to keep them [Haiti rebel forces] alive. I was reminded that Graham didn’t belong to these surroundings after all.” It’s a rare moment of fiery flare from Diederich, who spends a great deal of time fawning over the fact that he was in cahoots with a famous writer. This is not to say that more critical observations would have necessarily benefitted the book, but Seeds of Fiction really comes across as an account from a person who has no scruples about flaunting the fact that he was friends with British literary royalty, even more than two decades after the author’s passing. It hardly feels objective.
So the big concern about Seeds of Fiction is that it isn’t a proper journalistic account. The sole purpose of the book seems to be that Diederich wants to prove that he was the inspiration for the writing of The Comedians by inviting Greene to Hispaniola in 1965 in the first place. As it would turn out, this particular border trip only “inspired” the location for the final chapter of the work. Diederich also claims that The Comedians, which also became a 1967 film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, changed the way that the First World viewed the horrific human rights abuses and political situation in Haiti – the country had been plunged into a nasty dictatorship led by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier – but offers no proof that the novel did exactly that, other than to offer that Duvalier was so incensed by the book and film that he waged a sort of publicity campaign of terror against Greene. In other words, stuff that’s already on the public record, more or less. I expected more from a journalist for Time.
Additionally, this book will probably be only of interest to Greene scholars – though the book is too journalistic to be taken as academic text, and conversely, too academic to be enjoyed by the general public – because both The Comedians and Getting to Know the General are late period works that hardly break into the top echelon of Greene’s best known masterpieces. (Indeed, even Diederich notes that Getting to Know the General got middling reviews at best upon its publication, and is a flawed work that might have been better as a novel.) It really seems that Diederich is really scraping the bottom of the barrel here when it comes to chronicling Greene’s works, and is profiting off the vapour trails of his friendship with the respected writer, who had a habit of distrusting journalists.
That said, one can marvel at the fact that Diederich was either a really good note taker or has a fantastic memory, as he is able to reproduce conversations he had with Greene throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. And it’s clear that Diederich has a clear grasp on Haiti’s political history and that of Panama’s as a reporter for Time. Perhaps Diederich has a right in publishing this work as well, considering that he was arrested by Duvalier’s forces as a newspaper owner in Haiti, imprisoned and then exiled to the Dominican Republic without his family in tow – and, knowing that, one can be swayed to argue that writing a book such as this may be important to remind people of the atrocities of dictatorship so that history will not repeat itself.
Still, one finishes Seeds of Fiction feeling a bit empty and dissatisfied. Parts of the book are a chore to read, particularly when Diederich shifts away from the main narrative to fill in the holes of Latin American political history. For example, there’s a subplot of sorts where Greene allegedly had a role to play in freeing a South African hostage in Latin America, but Diederich kind of goes nowhere with it, other than to point out that the hostage died of seemingly natural causes before Greene could have a hand in rescuing him. So the plotting and pacing of this biography is a little suspect.
It turns out to be ironic that Greene himself had the following criticism about an earlier work by Diederich, conveyed in a letter to the journalist: “My fear is that only people like myself who have a particular interest in Central America will appreciate the work you have done.” That criticism is true of Seeds of Fiction, which doesn’t do much justice to the Greene legacy, or paint a portrait of a very complicated and private man. Essentially, this is only of interest to the most die-hard of Greene’s readership, who must have every scrap of paper written about the author despite its quality, which makes Seeds of Fiction a crowning disappointment.