LONDON. — Perhaps present-day life in Haiti is the film of the book?
In Graham Greene's 1960s tale of damp tropical intrigue, ''The Comedians,'' the only thing missing is the persona of the now-deposed president, the diminutive priest, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The Tontons Macoute, with their dark eye shades and sharp blades, still lurk, and their leader, Roger Lafontant, was alive and well, if incarcerated, until murdered by a soldier during the coup. Of course, Papa Doc and Baby Doc (Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier) are both gone, in different directions.
But there are, withdrawn into the shadows, a number of worthy substitutes. And the army, a nest of vipers, lives on, handing the baton from Gen. Henri Namphy to Gen. Prosper Avril, and now to coup leader Brig. Raoul Cedras.
What would Greene make of the priest-politician, Father Aristide, who was barely a teen-ager when ''The Comedians'' was published? Undoubtedly, he'd have been drawn to this leader of the Lumpenproletariat, whose commitment and courage put him literally in the line of fire during at least three assassination attempts, one of which left 24 members of his congregation dead in the pews.
Greene, the old unredeemed leftist, would have been fascinated by Father Aristide's reported comments inciting ''necklacing,'' the placing of burning tires around the shoulders of political opponents. The reports seem to have given George Bush a moment's pause as he deliberates whether it is in America's interest to use force to unseat the coup leaders and restore the first honestly elected president of the second-oldest republic in the hemisphere, and today the last hold-out against democratic rule.
For Greene, it would have been a wonderful puzzle of verbal intentions and sly innuendo, to be interpreted malevolently or benignly, according to one's political observation point. It's all in the nuances of Haiti's debased French patois.
This was the problem, I recall, during the big street protests of 1987. Father Aristide talked to his people about ''ti dife wouj nan kaotchou-yo.''
Translated, this means ''the little red bonfires in tires.'' ''Light them all over,'' Father Aristide suggested. ''They are more effective than Uzis.'' And he went on to ask the crowd to ''turn the streets red.''
The American Embassy went up the wall. ''That little priest is talking violence again,'' said an embassy spokesman, who, struggling with the translation, thought that red meant communism and fire revolution.
In fact, it was very clear at the time that Father Aristide was advocating nothing more than the burning of old rubber tires in the street. They make a lot of smoke, and it's a cheap and dramatic way of letting everyone know there's a protest. It is a far cry from necklacing.
Maybe the embassy, a reporter or a political enemy got it wrong this time, too. I can't quite imagine Father Aristide, although he is no Martin Luther King, going in for this sort of thing.
Which brings us to the present dilemma: what should be done? Should we spice Greeneland with the arrival of the U.S. Marines to sort out the bad guys and reinstall the president?
The Organization of American States, struggling with this question, has decided no, at least for the time being, while negotiations continue. Should it change its mind?
The U.S. tried going into Haiti to sort out the mess once before, in 1915, and stay as the occupying power for 18 years. By the time the U.S. pulled out, Haiti had the first automatic phone jTC system in Latin America, and the sewers were working. But the Americans were widely resented, and the time was just too short to make any real impact on the Haitian way of political life.
Nevertheless, it is a well recognized international principle to come to the aid of a beleaguered, legally constituted, government upon its request. President Aristide, popularly elected, has a good case if he decides to ask for assistance.
In practice, however, we have to pick and choose our fights. There have been hundreds of military coups d'etat, not least in Latin America, where the outside world has chosen to let things be, an intelligent policy if its own interests are not particularly threatened. Prudence, John Stuart Mill wrote in his famous essay on international law in 1848, must enter the scales along with morality.
The OAS was sensible to try to work first through mediation and using only the stick of economic embargo. But the situation appears to be deteriorating fast; the army is clearly out of control. To save democracy and, even more than that, to prevent the total disintegration of Haitian society, something more serious must be attempted. There is probably both a case and a need for outside intervention.
But to avoid the minuses of 1915, and to give the pluses the best chance, it would be wise that the U.S. play a minority role in any military action. Let the Canadians, the Venezuelans, the Jamaicans and the Brazilians take the lead.
Democracy in Haiti, if it is to mature, needs ALL of the American states to give it a helping hand.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.