MIAMI (Reuters) - In 1965 British author Graham Greene arrived in the Dominican Republic fresh from neighboring Haiti where he witnessed first hand the “unique evil” of Haiti’s brutal dictator, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
Greene was met at the airport by an enterprising New Zealand-born journalist, Bernard Diederich, whom he had befriended in Haiti on previous trips a few years earlier.
“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 wonder if, indeed, he had the power to change Haiti,” Diederich wrote in a new book, “Seeds of Fiction, Graham Greene’s Adventures in Haiti and Central America 1954-83.”
“Could he bring down Duvalier? And, more to the point, would he write a book about Haiti?” Diederich said.
Greene was in the prime of his writing career and had already published another Caribbean novel, “Our Man in Havana,” set in Cuba.
Greene called Papa Doc a “madman” telling Diederich that he had “never felt such pervasive fear in a country as in Haiti.”
When he picked Greene up at the airport he was visibly shaking, Diederich recalled in an interview. “He had a terrible dread he wasn’t going to make it out.”
Greene had hidden his notes, written in tiny, almost illegible script, in a hardback Victorian novel. “I don’t know why he bothered to hide them because no-one could read his notes,” laughed Diederich.
For years later Greene still had nightmares about Papa Doc and his dreaded henchmen, the Tonton Macoutes, he added.
During the next week Diederich took Greene on a trip along the border with Haiti introducing him to more characters for his book, including at an insane asylum where hopelessly ill-equipped rebels were training to overthrow Duvalier.
The resulting book, “The Comedians,” is considered one of Greene’s masterpieces, and infuriated Papa Doc, who banned it. “It was his most political novel. He wrote it for a purpose. We were really at war with Papa Doc,” said Diederich.
When a movie came out the next year, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Alec Guinness, Duvalier banned that too. “Graham wrote the script. He told me it was another arrow at Papa Doc,” said Diederich.
Greene’s rage at Duvalier stemmed from his first visit to Haiti in 1954 during the Caribbean nation’s brief heyday as a hip destination for the jet-set before the election in 1957 of Duvalier, a supposedly unassuming country doctor, who soon turned into a bloody dictator.
Greene arrived from Jamaica where he had been staying at Goldeneye, the coastal estate owned by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. In Haiti, Greene stayed with theater and film director Peter Brook who was working on a Broadway musical “House of Flowers,” based on a short story by Truman Capote.
Diederich, who had been living in Haiti since 1949 and owned the English-language newspaper Haiti Sun, offered to help Greene on a return trip.
“Graham fell in love with Haiti the same way it collared me,” said Diederich. “He had just finished writing ‘The Quiet American’ and he told me Haiti reminded him of Indo-China.”
Greene returned in 1956 with Catherine Walston, the love of his life, and the trio spent a lot of time together, comparing copious notes they both took as they traveled interviewing possible characters for a book. Some of that material would later show up in the pages of “The Comedians.”
“The rest of our lives we were competing with notes. I was in awe of Graham and wanted to help him as well as I could and certainly learn from him,” said Diederich, the author of 15 books himself.
It was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted decades. In preparing his book Diederich drew on 132 letters from Greene, as well as dozens from Greene’s mistress, Yvonne Cloetta.
Throughout his career Greene was always at pains to protect his privacy and hide his methodology. He gave few interviews and the two small autobiographies he wrote were deliberately uninformative and revealed very little about him.
They got along in large part because Diederich respected Greene’s privacy. “He didn’t want to be recognized and liked to travel about incognito. I never stepped over the edge with him. I never pried,” he said.
“He was (Greene‘s) guide and enabler,” said writer T.D. Allman, who introduced Diederich at a Miami Book Fair International reading earlier this week. “Greene had a genius in finding people who could tell him what was going on.”
Diederich and Greene remained close, getting together again in Panama in 1976 when it was under the rule of another dictator, General Omar Torrijos. Working as Time magazine’s bureau chief in Mexico City, Diederich had come to know the general well, and suggested that he and Greene would hit it off. “I told him you both have the same liberal compass,” said Diederich.
They did, prompting Greene to write one of his occasional non-fiction works, titled “Getting to Know the General.”
Greene and the general had something else in common; both liked to drink, which Torrijos often did to excess. Greene was not one to wait for the sun to go down over the yardarm before having a tipple, said Diederich, though he never saw him inebriated.
Greene showed up for the first encounter to find Torrijos still in his pajamas so hung-over he could barely speak. He sobered up on a helicopter ride from Panama City to the island of Contadora where Greene interviewed him over rum punches on the beach under a palm tree.
“In no time at all they seemed to click. It was very animated, they talked and talked,” said Diederich.
Torrijos was briefly distracted by a Colombian beauty playing in the sand, said Diederich, and disappeared with her for 30 minutes before returning to continue the conversation with beads of sweat on his brow.
“It was like a scene out of a Graham Greene novel: a Central American strongman and an Oxford-educated Briton sat beneath a coconut tree on a tropical beach philosophizing,” wrote Diederich. (Editing by Christopher Wilson)