Our Man in Havana

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.



15 thoughts on “Our Man in Havana

  1. Thank you for writing about this novel, which I read far too young and which I absolutely must reread — some of those descriptions kept popping into my head when I was in Cuba recently!

  2. I’ve loved the handful of Greene’s novels I’ve read but have yet to read this one — it sounds wonderful so I can see I will have to soon. Thanks.

  3. I loved this post Litlove! I was a huge Graham Greene fan in high school/early college, but I haven’t read much of him in awhile. I definitely need to change that! (And I very much enjoyed this one, which I think might be the one I read most recently.)

  4. My experiences with reading Greene have not been good, yet you make this sound wonderful. I tried to read The Power and The Glory when I was in college, and found it as oppressive as a hot, dry desert. I loved the movie made from Green’s The Quiet American with Michael Caine and tried to read the novel afterwards, but couldn’t make it through that either. I will file this away though as a possible read in case there is a time when I think I might again try to make it through one of Greene’s novel.

  5. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’ve been discovering Greene over the last couple years and loving him. His approach to religion, and politics for that matter, isn’t nearly as heavy-handed as I’d expected — there’s definitely enough love/wisdom/sincerity to pull a reader through.Have you read The End of the Affair?Do! I think it’s brilliant.

  6. As wonderful is the book is, I have an even greater affection for the movie, which stars Alec Guinness as Wormold. He is just about perfect, and the movie, directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man), is damn excellent as well.

  7. I still have not read anything else since The End of the Affair that I liked a lot. He is a writer I feel I could trust, in the sense you name, that he will give you an interesting and well told story. What you write about Milly makes me want to read this, she sounds like an interesting character. Catholicism is often a topic in Greene’s books, isn’t it?

  8. Isn’t it bracing when you find that an author you were sure you’d hate is marvelous after all? It’s good for your brain to be pried open! I felt that way about Salman Rushdie. But for every author where this is the case, I feel like there’s another author who’s exactly what I expected, like William Faulkner, and just as unpleasant as I always thought they’d be. :/

  9. Kirstyjane – I get the impression that Greene features on too many GCSE lists and I really don’t think he’s an author for that age group. There is so much sly cunning, so much world-weariness, and so many sad compromises made with life and fate that you just have to have a more mature viewpoint to get it all, I think. I’d love to know how you find it a second time around!

    Harriet – I always think our reading tastes are very similar. Would love to know what you think of it.

    Eva – and there am I saying you have to be older to enjoy Greene – good for you! I’m really delighted you like him. I’m definitely all set to read a lot more of his work now.

    Stefanie – heh heh. 🙂

    Cam – first of all how nice to see you again! Does this mean you’ve resumed blogging? I do sympathise, though, about Graham Greene. Mister Litlove was similar scarred by The Power and the Glory (it was a school book) and is also hovering over this one, a tad undecided. Some authors just don’t fit us, and that’s okay. If you do read it, let me know what happens!

    Isabella – that is, in fact, the only other Greene I’ve read, and I loved it too. Isn’t it nice to find out that he is nowhere near as heavy as feared? It was such a happy moment. I wonder if it’s better going into all new authors with really low expectations. I definitely want to read much more of his work now. Travels with My Aunt, and Brighton Rock next.

    David – thank you for that recommendation. I will definitely try to get hold of those films to watch them. Alec Guiness I can imagine must be fabulous in the role.

    Lilian – I wish I’d known about it when you were reading crime fiction! This isn’t exactly that, but it is interesting in many related ways.

    Caroline – yes, I think Catholicism is one of his major preoccupations, which is interesting as so few novels tackle religion in any profound way these days (or perhaps they do and I haven’t noticed them!). I loved The End of the Affair and was so pleased that this one was just as good for me. Milly is a great character – I probably ended up liking her the best!

    Jenny – that’s so funny you should say that. I’m currently reading The Empress of Florence by Rushdie and loving it, although I never expected to. Perhaps I should just steer clear of Faulkner, whom I’ve never read!

  10. You make me want to read Greene again! I read a couple of his books a long time ago and liked them very much, but at the time the religious ideas had more meaning for me than they would now, so I’ve sort of thought I was through with him. But of course there are plenty of other reasons to read him!

  11. Pingback: Journey Without Maps- Graham Greene | Selections from my tower of shame

  12. Pingback: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene « JoV's Book Pyramid

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