This is the fifth Graham Greene’s novel I am reading. I am a great fan of Graham Greene The Quiet American who caught me at hello to the obsession in The End of the Affair, Greene’s novels are all thought provoking with a common theme of religion and men who commit character defects due to desperation.
I knew long time ago my next Greene novel would be ‘Our Man in Havana’. When I saw a new copy on the library shelf, I took it home.
‘Our Man in Havana’ is of course set in Cuba under the regime of Batista and our protagonist James Wormold, whose wife has left him alone with his daughter, Milly. Milly is rather high maintenance in more ways than one and it is this trait that sends her poor father in debt. Wormold sells vacuum cleaners for a living with the odd drink with his friend Dr Hasselbacher. This all changes however when he meets Hawthorne, a man from British Intelligence who is looking for a new agent in Cuba and who decides that the inconspicuous Wormold with its legitimate small business as cover, is the perfect man for the job.
To please his superior and justify the big expenditure for his and the daughter’s high maintenance lives, Wormold starts making up fictitious agents, suspicious findings and tales of espionage in the depths of Cuba. Things start to get a little more complicated for Wormold, and materials of dark comedy, as the things he makes up start to actually happen.
Told to recruit agents, he fabricates the economist, Professor Sanchez, the engineer Cifuentes, the strip club dancer, Teresa, and the pilot Raul, who is soon spotting sinister constructions in the heart of the wilds and supplying blueprints that Wormold has concocted from the workings of his vacuum cleaners. He gets more than he bargained for, as London responds by sending him a secretary, Beatrice, and a radio operator, to assist him in this more-than-one man-could-handle mission.
Now what is Wormold going to do now that London has sent someone over to monitor his work and possibly uncover his fradulence? To add to his pressure from London, a certain Captain Segura who is rumoured to carry a cigarette case is upholstered with human skin and the master of torture, has his eyes on Milly and is coercing Wormold to persuade Milly to marry him….
They can print a statistics and count the populations in hundreds of thousands, but to each man a city consists of no more than a few streets, a few houses, a few people. Remove those few and a city exists no longer except as a pain in the memory, like the pain of an amputated leg no longer there. – page 189
The book is written as spy caper’s long before Ian Fleming began its 007 series. Greene had been part of MI6 in the 1940’s and seemed able to predict many future political development around the world and in this case the Cuban Missile crisis, which render this book written close to 60 years ago is still as relevant. I did not expect the book to be a dark comedy so I was pleasantly surprise myself for laughing out loud in some parts when our protagonist was supposed to be mired in a tangle of deception and in a very serious trouble. He cannot go on as he is, but he is set in his ways and wedded to mediocre respectability and keep up the appearance of a respectable Englishman abroad.
Writing to his mistress Catherine Walston in 1956, Greene told her that Our Man in Havana was potentially a ‘very funny plot which if it comes off will make a footnote to history’. To a certain extent, it did. The book reads like a breeze. A good choice if you are looking for dark comedy. I always love Greene simple and clear prose. It makes reading his novel a smooth ride, but the simplicity belies many layers of meanings. In this case, it is a decision to do the right thing for love, even if it defies your employer’s command. I find the story entertaining with good twist and plot, if you don’t mind that the novel ended with one happy, cheesy ending.
Paperback. Publisher: Vintage 2004, originally published in 1958; Length: 2 pages; Setting: Havana, Cuba and London. Source: Reading Battle Library. Finished reading at: 30th March 2012.
Litlove : The sole hope of the novel is placed firmly in the individual’s stamina for love, despite everything that happens to that abused emotion. That very investment in love means that the novel has a rather weak but unexpectedly happy ending. It didn’t matter so much to me; I’d been reading for Greene’s mocking portrait of government intelligence, his subtle inquiry into questions of faith, courage and credulity, his vivid and poignant evocation of the complex knots of loyalty which bind lives together and his brilliant description of Cuba; these elements kept me loving this book and admiring Greene’s formidable skills as a novelist.
Savidge reads : I was definitely entertained with ‘Our Man in Havana’ yet I don’t think I was ever well and truly sold on it, I think I wanted and expected more maybe, the fault could therefore be mine. I’m still glad I read it though. 6.5/10
I think it being my second novel of Greene’s that I read honestly didn’t help this book, especially after the first was the impeccable ‘The End of the Affair’.