Graham Greene is one of those authors I’ve avoided for most of my life, thinking that he would be too issue-driven, too dark, too steeped in whisky-drinking disillusioned priests and complicated political problems in obscure parts of the world for my taste. When it comes to reading, there’s nothing I like more than having my assumptions shown up for the partial and unjust prejudices they are. Authors survive through time for a reason. Graham Greene is called a modern classic today because (even if there weren’t other pressing reasons) he is a remarkably good writer. Reading his novels, I have the feeling of finally being held in safe hands, of having a story unfold at exactly the right speed, with glimpsed vistas of great depth of meaning, with an economy of expression that says everything it needs to.
And then there’s Greene’s strange prescience; his novels frequently pre-empted some of the more unexpected political developments in the world (in this case the Cuban missile crisis), which means that his perspective hasn’t dated. In real life, his politics weren’t always admirable, but since he was true primarily to the rules of fiction, which demand full ambiguity rather than partisan propaganda, the novels remain wise and slyly insightful. After all, questions of faith and loyalty, of having the courage to do what one wants to do as opposed to what one is paid to do, of judging the character of those we serve and those we love, well, those questions never go away.
Our Man in Havana is the story of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman and a lost cause to the human race. He spends his days drinking in seedy local bars with the retired doctor, Dr Hasselbacher and worrying about what his teenage daughter, Milly, will spend his inadequate income on next. Wormold is living a half-life since his wife ran off, taking with her his pride in himself, his sense of capability, and leaving him in semi-exile in Havana:
‘It was a city to visit, not a city to live in, but it was the city where Wormold had first fallen in love and he was held to it as though to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.’
Milly is a wonderful character, ostensibly committed to the Catholic religion that Wormold promised her mother he’d bring her up in, but with a broad subversive streak that finds her solemnly reciting ‘Hail Mary, Quite Contrary’ as a child, and then setting fire to the school bully, Thomas Earl Parkham. Given that bullies, or at least abuses of power, figure heavily and negatively in Greene’s work, this immediately puts Milly on the side of the angels, regardless of the novenas she offers up in the hope that her father will buy her a horse. It’s not surprising that Wormold will go along with her, whatever she wants, when she seems to have absorbed all the vitality and promise that he has long since abandoned. When an Englishman, Hawthorne, turns up out of the blue and recruits Wormold to the secret service, it’s less the fact that Hawthorne gives him almost no chance to refuse, than the thought of actually liberating himself from the debts Milly has racked up that lead him to accept the role.
Suddenly Wormold finds he has skills he never knew he possessed; not at spying, which he views as a ludicrous fantasy, but at dreaming up story lines and characters to put in coded messages that keep the London office satisfied. Told to recruit agents, he fabricates the economist, Professor Sanchez, the engineer Cifuentes, the stripclub 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, all of whom need to be incorporated somehow into his make-believe without uncovering its basic fraudulence.
Greene presents a London espionage administration more than willing to be suckered into implausible scenarios; there’s an inevitability to this, since humankind loves stories, and religion itself, that great mainstay of Greene’s fiction, is responsible for a whole saga of them. The question that Wormold raises is how we use both our stories and our capacity for belief: ‘He was glad that [Milly] could still accept fairy stories: a virgin who bore a child, pictures that wept or spoke words of love in the dark. Hawthorne and his kind were equally credulous, but what they swallowed were nightmares, grotesque stories out of science fiction’. So it is with mounting horror and disbelief that Wormold realises his fake reports are starting to come true. What he knew to be fictional characters are being killed off, and he has to start fighting for the safety of those he loves, and to decide where his loyalties ultimately lie.
I found it most intriguing to discover that Ian Fleming’s Dr No was published the same year as Our Man in Havana. Wormold and James Bond came into being at the same time, responding to the preoccupations of the Cold War, and to fantasies of what one man could do for his country, what courage and action might look like in the wake of two destructive world wars. Ian Fleming endorsed the fantasy of invincibility, the triumph of skill, technology and cunning over evil. Greene meanwhile wrote something far more complex; in many ways this is a spoof of that invincible position, even before it became enshrined in the cultural imagination. Our Man in Havana is mired in a far more realistic vision of human frailty, gullibility, our infinite capacity to make mistakes and to misread one another. Good and evil are far from clear cut, even if the preposterous sometimes does happen.
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.