Reading “Our Man in Havana”

graham greene
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I never quite got round to reading Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana until recently. It is a story about a vacuum cleaner salesman, Wormold, who lives in Havana, whose adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that dumbfounds him. So when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income; he is tempted. In return for the boost to his finances all he has to do is file a few reports. Wormold, thus, ends up working for MI6. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place. Espionage, murder, torture, poisoning, embezzlement and nail-biting tension are the elements that bubble away in the cauldron of this classic of the spy genre. It is also a love story of sorts. However, you could be misled into thinking that the book is just another po-faced thriller engineered to keep readers on the edge of their seats. But it’s not. In actual fact, the book is a brilliant satire of that particular genre and parts of it are hilarious.

Faced with the practical difficulties of spying, when you are stuck in a retail outlet all day and haven’t a clue how to go about the task, Wormold starts sending fake reports to London about a secret installation that is being built in the mountains of Cuba. He invents agents, puts them on the payroll, and purloins the salaries of these fictitious employees to pay for his daughter’s excessive retail therapy. However, his reports prove so thorough and interesting, that a small team of helpers is sent from MI6 headquarters in London to work for Wormold in Havana and to set up a station there for him to aid in the work of spying on the enemy. Wormold then has the problem of how to keep his imaginary operatives from ever meeting anyone in the team. For, although none of the names he has given London, are actually agents, he does furnish names of actual people living in Havana, by taking them from the membership roster of an exclusive country club.

I won’t give any more of the plot away in case you want to read it yourself, except to say that there are some hilarious scenes, like the one in which he is invited to speak at an international conference of vacuum-cleaner manufacturers, where he spends most of the time trying to work out who is attempting to poison him and what the means of delivering the toxin are – is it in the crab, in the wine, or in the water he is given to drink?

Eventually, Wormold is dragged back to London by his handler to face the music, but the ending is just as unpredictable as the twisted plot has led us to expect.

Graham Greene’s novel is reminiscent of the biting, tongue-in-cheek satire of Evelyn Waugh, such as in his novels Rise and Fall, Vile Bodies, and the Sword of Honour trilogy. Greene made the comment, in one of his autobiographies, [In Havana,] ‘where every vice was permissible and every trade possible, lay the true background for my comedy.’ Graham Greene traveled extensively throughout the world, either as a reporter or on behalf of the British Foreign Office. And he used the countries he came to live in as the backdrop to his novels and short stories. For example, in 1935 he trekked across Liberia, and described the journey in Journey Without Maps. He visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there and as a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. He undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel, The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa. He also spent time in Haiti and the result was the novel The Comedians.

In Our Man in Havana, Greene does a great job of making real for the reader not just the sweltering heat and the dusty roads, but also the inner workings of the ex-pat community there and its uneasy relationship with the local rule of law, and the contrast with the poorer native-born Cuban population.

Graham Greene is a strange mixture of vice and virtue. He was a devout Roman Catholic, drank like a fish, frequented brothels from time to time, went to confession infrequently, and even occasionally got a thrill out of going off on his own to play Russian roulette with a pistol. He maintained that his main demon was boredom (hence the need to spice things up a bit by running the risk of blowing his head off). This dual role as saint and sinner, manifests itself in his books. Incidentally, Greene categorized his books as either ‘novels’ or ‘entertainments,’ Our Man in Havana falling squarely into the second category.

But, like Waugh, Greene was a master at weaving a complex tale with apparent ease, striking the right balance between comedic and serious plotting and finishing a story with a satisfying question mark over what might happen next. Our Man in Havana, is one of his most characteristic stories that bears rereading and still stands as a classic when many other more modern novels fall by the wayside.