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Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene

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Author: Graham Greene

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      10.11.2011 14:27
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      A failing vacuum cleaner salesman is drawn into the world of cold war espionage

      I've been aware of Graham Green's books for a long time but I have to admit that I've only read a couple being more familiar with the countless film adaptations of his better known stories such as 'Brighton Rock', 'The Quiet American' , 'The Power And The Glory' and 'The Third Man'. It was only when my wife picked this book up at an airport before going on a foreign business trip and brought it back home saying how good it was that I decided to give it a go and I'm glad I did.

      'Our Man in Havana' is set in Cuba in 1958, a time of great tension just before the revolution that saw Fidel Castro come to power. This was a time of huge political intrigue, where Cuba and more so its capital Havana with its decaying colonial beauty and bohemian nightlife became the backdrop for intricate games of espionage by all the major power of the time the American, the Soviets and the British. They were all trying to keep abreast of the volatile political situation and to gain advantage over any changes that might occur. The ruling government in Cuba, heavily dependent on the backing of close neighbours America were becoming increasingly repressive and unpopular as they tried to stem the action of the rebel forces gaining strength day by day.

      In this volatile political milieu we meet Jim Wormold like many of Greene's heroes a small man, some might even say a loser caught in the middle of a dangerous situation not of his own making. Wormold runs a failing business selling vacuum cleaners to the richer elements in Cuban society. His beautiful Cuban wife the reason why he finds himself in Cuba has left him years ago and now he struggles to bring up his equally beautiful and demanding teenage daughter Milly on his own. His only friend is the equally lonely German Dr Hasselbacher whom he meets every morning at the Wonder Bar for a glass of daiquiri.

      Wormold is a doting father trying to make up for what he sees as his failure to keep his marriage alive. He feels guilty the situation he finds himself in and worries about the effects that it might have on his daughter. Unfortunately this leads to Wormold to spoil Milly in every way he can. When Milly decides that she must have a horse and membership of the exclusive and expensive riding club Wormold realises that he simply cannot afford to carry on indulging her. However when by chance he meets a mysterious Englishman Mr Hawthorne an opportunity presents itself to make extra money by carrying out a little espionage and to file a few regular reports. Wormold is tempted by the money and starts sending fake reports in order to satisfy his new paymasters, but when unexpectedly these reports start coming true Wormold's life get very complicated and Havana becomes a dangerous place to be in.

      Graham Greene once described his stories as falling into two separate categories 'novels' and 'entertainments' a way of warning his readers that sometimes his stories would include humour and a certain amount of flippancy in the narrative. 'Our Man in Havana' falls distinctly into the latter camp although this is not to down value the skill and worth of the story. Greene uses the fate of his central character the hapless Wormold to explore the sheer madness of that time in history, with the cold war properly raging and the old colonial powers trying to desperately hang on to their power base in a quickly changing international stage. Like Ian Fleming, Greene had some first-hand experience of this shady world of undercover agents and espionage, he himself being recruited into MI6. He was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War where the infamous double agent Kim Philby was Greene's supervisor and friend. Throughout his writing career he would draw upon his inside knowledge and the people he'd met, the places he'd visited and in various guises included them in his novels. Unlike Fleming he didn't want to glamorise the life of the spy. In Greene's eyes the whole world of espionage is a grubby place populated by ineffectual losers whose reason for being involved is at best accidental and at worse forced upon them.

      Wormold is a great character because of his ordinariness; he is the everyman that we can all relate to. He's trapped in a life he never wanted or foresaw and yet he hasn't the courage or conviction to change this. His devotion to his daughter Milly is the only focus to his life but has she now enters womanhood a whole host of further problems are brought to bear on Wormold.

      Greene travelled extensively throughout his life and this shows in his knowing descriptions of exotic locations and cultures. He paints a vivid picture of Havana its former colonial glories fading fast and being replaced by decadence and decay. The forces of evil are lining up on either side of the political divide. The authoritarian regime is personified by Captain Segura the 'Red Vulture' for his prowess at torturing people who unfortunately for Wormold is also taking an interest in Milly. On the other side are the shadowy forces of the intelligence community only ever referred to as 'they' that begin to increasingly make trouble for poor Wormold as his fake reports become known by more and more agents.

      Greene manages to capture a flavour of the time, the paranoia that associated the rise of communism in the east, the development of ever powerful weapons of mass destruction and the general uncertainty of the future for most people. These concerns reached terrifying levels with the Cuban missile crisis a few year after the novel is set but even here in pre revolution Havana we see the sign of dangerous conflicts and political upheaval ahead. Greene is dealing with important themes but he weaves them into his story subtly using the everyday preoccupations of ordinary people like Wormold to illustrate far bigger subjects.

      The story is full of nice touches like Wormold's concern that his new line of vacuum cleaners called the 'Atomic Pile' are proving unpopular with a clientele that associates anything 'Atomic' with death and global destruction. Or in another scene where Wormold and Segura play a game of checkers using miniatures of Whisky and Bourbon as the pieces, each having to drink the particular bottle once a piece is taken so each trying to avoid this for fear becoming so drunk that they will lose the game.

      As a love interest we have Beatrice Severn who is appointed by London intelligence to be Wormold's assistant , her qualifications being that she speaks French even though they don't in Cuba any objections being dismissed with colonial arrogance "It's much the same, they're both Latin tongues". Wormold of course is incapable of making his feeling known to her and his convinced that his love will always remain unrequited.

      With plenty of twist and some brilliantly concocted set piece scenes 'Our Man in Havana' is a delight to read. It is incisive, atmospheric and humorous, rather than 'laugh out loud' funny. The plot is incredulous but oddly enough weirdly convincing in an era when only a few years later the CIA contemplated sending Fidel Castro exploding cigars in an attempt to assassinate him. The main characters are sympathetic and the baddies quaintly sinister. It is a work of entertaining fiction by a great author at his genial best.

      'Our Man in Havana' in paperback (256 pages) is available from Amazon UK for £5.30 (free shipping) or as a Kindle version for £5.04 at the time this review was written.

      Highly recommended.

      © Mauri 2011

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        16.04.2010 02:35
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        An excellent read.

        Our Man in Havana is one of my favourite Graham Greene novels. Set in Cuba during the rule of Batista. Wormold, a hapless British vacuum cleaner salesman and doting father, is looking for a way to increase his income and provide the lifestyle his young daughter desires. He meets a recruitment agent for the British Secret Service, who offers him work as a spy, which he finds it difficult to refuse.

        Wormold is no spy, so instead of engaging in espionage, he opts to invent a fantasy world, involving a network of fictitious agents and imaginary weapons installations, based on sketches of vacuum parts. His paymasters in London are very happy with his work, with the exception of Hawthorne, the man who recruited him, who has suspicions regarding the authenticity of the information. Nonetheless, Wormold's position as the British intelligence service's 'man in Havana' is secure. He is provided with a secretary, Beatrice, and continues to provide fake intelligence.

        However, the plot takes a bizarre twist when reality begins to mirror Wormold's world of lies. He realises he is no longer in control of circumstances and gradually gets sucked into real world espionage. Wormold is forced to take drastic measures to protect himself, his daughter and his secretary, who becomes his emotional companion and eventually his lover. He manages to obtain some genuine intelligence, which he sends back to London, but ironically, it is indecipherable and cannot be used. As the real world of spying comes ever closer to Wormold, his situation becomes increasingly desperate.

        This is an enthralling novel, with rich textured language and vivid description. It is the story of one man's attempt to improve his life through extraordinary means, discovering personal resources and abilities he never knew he possessed. The novel highlights the destructive power of disinformation, underscoring the impossibility of deciphering truth from myth in the world of shadows that existed in the cold war era. It provides a clever combination of highly contrasting worlds - the domestic, nurturing home of Wormold and the murky world of espionage. Excellently written, this novel is highly recommended.

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          30.11.2009 19:18
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          Not Greene's best novel but at his standards, it more than worthy of a read.

          Our Man In Havana tells the story of an ageing vacuum cleaner dealer struggling to provide for himself and his daughter. His daughter is growing up fast and begins wanting things that he can't possibly pay for on his salary. So when a spy approaches him in the bathroom and offers him more money on the side to work as an agent he can hardly refuse...

          Graham Greene really is one of the most fantastic authors that this country has ever produced, and this country has surely produced some incredible ones. What I find brilliant about his work is that it appears timeless. Despite being written over 50 years ago to my eye it could have been written last year, the sheer quality of his stories and his unintrusive yet beautifully flowing style shine over all. I have to say one of Greene's other novels, The End of The Affair, is probably one of my favourite books of all time.

          Our Man In Havana is a slow building book and to be truthful when I was at first reading it I found myself becoming frustrated with how slow the book appeared to be developing. But perhaps I'm just impatient. What I like most about Our Man In Havana is the characters. Greene's characters always appear so real. Wormold brings parallels with fathers or even single parents everywhere, he agrees to pay for a horse for his daughter having no idea where he will get the money from, there is nothing hollywood about Greene's characters, they are all extremely multi dimensional. And Dr Hasselbacher fits Wormold perfectly as the old friend who he is not even on first name terms with.

          I will not spoil it but the climax and ending are perfect and Greene perfectly concludes his stories with a real ending, and the world is full of real ending after all.

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          30.07.2003 21:22
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          Havana in the late-1950s is a city to visit not to live in, though not many tourists come now that the President's regime is nearing its end. But Wormold, an ineffectual, beliefless vacuum cleaner salesman whose valued personal possessions would fit into a single crate, has problems unrelated to politics. His wife left on the morning plane to Miami more than a decade ago, his 16-year-old daughter spends more money than he can earn, and his company have sent him a new model called the Atomic Pile Cleaner at a time of uncertain power supply and heightened nuclear paranoia. Wormold is full of sad caution, the archetypal rootless urban man set adrift on the dangerous edges of Greeneland. Law-abiding and incapable of action, he allocates six minutes every morning for companionship with his only friend, who still addresses him by his surname. So it's hardly surprising that, when approached to become the British agent in Havana on $150 a month plus expenses, he finds it far easier to invent informers than actually recruit them, selecting names at random from a list of Country Club members and compiling bogus reports with the aid of a large map and the current issue of Time magazine. But his creative imagination takes him into shadowy territory when he passes off vacuum cleaner designs as secret military installations, and fatal coincidences unravel into assassination, blackmail and betrayal. Greene had been an intelligence agent in World War 2, attempting to run agents into the Vichy colonies from Sierra Leone and later dealing with counter-espionage in Portugal, where those German Abwehr officers who hadn't yet been recruited by the British supplemented their modest incomes by sending erroneous reports back to an increasingly desperate Berlin. He had also seen the brutality of Batista's regime at first hand, propped up by foreign governments such as the British, who had sold jet planes to Cuba whilst denying any knowledge of repression o
          r civil war. Greene's reportage of pre-Castro Havana is beautifully evocative, from the naked dancers at the Shanghai Club and the superstitions of the lottery draw to the pornographic postcards hanging in streets misted by sea spray, full of shabby hotels, crude colours and "pink, grey, yellow pillars...eroded like rocks." But domestic terror is something that is only ever spoken about; confined to a couple of stray bullets, curfews in the provinces, power cuts and "unpleasant doings out of sight." Our Man In Havana is not so much a novel about Cuba as a novel about a Secret Service at once eccentric, ridiculous and lethal, card-index in one hand and revolver in the other. Hawthorne, Wormold's immediate superior, is the epitome of the effete Establishment - exclusive tie, stone-coloured suit, royal monogram on his silk pyjamas and cold, stiff air. The Chief, meticulous, romantic and fatally removed from everyday realities by his literary imagination, is more concerned with trumping the Americans and Naval Intelligence than verifying his agents' reports. Greene's ridicule is full of comic asides, from the French speaking secretary sent to a Spanish speaking country - "It's much the same. They're both Latin tongues" - to the lengthy admiration of the ingenious weapons that look just like two-way nozzles and snap action couplings and a farcical poisoning scene. The book is more satirical than funny, the plot might be a little slow for some, and the characters in Greene's entertainments are never as memorable as in his more serious works. You won't find a Pinkie or a Harry Lime here, though Captain Segura, a humanized Captain Ventura (Batista's real life chief of police), carries a perceptive cynicism along with his human skin cigarette case, and Doctor Hasselbacher, a man of uncertain loyalties, sad and gentle, is well drawn and compelling, sitting in his uhlan uniform on the Kaiser&#
          39;s birthday, infected with a fragile optimism and a shady past. Our Man In Havana is certainly a topical read at the moment, the dodgy dossiers and dark actors as apt as ever even if the dangerous games between East and West have long since been played out. It's by no means Greene's best work, and I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to the author, but it's still worth reading as a snapshot of Havana at the dangerous end of Batista's regime and a well aimed swipe at the absurdities of government sophistry and incompetence. DETAILS Published by Vintage Classics (224 pages). ISBN 0099286084. £5.59 at amazon.co.uk. Greene also scripted a film version of the book starring Alec Guinness as Wormold, Burl Ives as Dr Hasselbacher and Noel Coward as Hawthorne.

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            12.03.2003 19:14
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            "G.R.A.H.A.M. G.R.E.E.N.E" The young assistant in my local library shook her head as she gazed into her computer. "Can you spell that again for me? No. There isn't a Graham Greene." I gently explained that he was a well-known author with practically a shelf to himself, but that they had changed the books around during the past week. I suggested she look under the title, Our Man in Havana. "How do you spell Havana?" I popped into the corner where the public computer was and found it on the list before returning to the counter. It was the usual busy saturday afternoon and I rejoined the queue behind several children each holding half a dozen books and couple of videos. "You don't have a shelf under Spy Stories now?" "It will be under General Fiction". "But you don't have a shelf any more under General Fiction." "No, General Fiction is now under "Novels A-Z". "I've already looked there". The nice little girl, who I guessed must be on work experience while studying for A Level Literature, picked up the phone and the next county library down the line put it aside for me. Having been recommended this book, which I had missed reading somehow, I hoped it was going to be worth it. With the ending of the Cold War, which produced a plethora of spy stories, many of them superb, this genre seems to have less relevance nowdays. Perhaps this is why my local library no longer dedicates a shelf to them. Our Man in Havana is satirical easy reading and comes as light relief from the all action suspense of previous offerings. Written in 1958 and set in pre-Castro Cuba, we are taken into the world of Jim Wormold who manages the Havana branch of Phastkleaners vacuum cleaners. Life for Mr Wormold revolves around his need to indulge Milly, the beautiful 17 year old daughter whose lifestyle is becoming daily more expensive. Add to thi
            s the fact that selling vacuum cleaners in a city which has power cuts more often than not - and that the latest model from the manufacturers is entitled the Atomic Pile in an age of nuclear trepidation - and things are not looking good. Enter the mysterious Hawthorne, an elegant Englishman with a not- to-be-interrupted assertiveness; and inoffensive Jim Wormwald finds that he has agreed to recruit local agents for his country in exchange for a monthly retainer and bottomless expenses. Now Jim is in dangerous territory. It does not help that Milly's chief admirer is Captain Segura aka The Red Vulture. It is said that Captain Segura's wallet is made from the skin of one of his luckless interrogatees. When trying to enlist the aid of Dr Hasselbacher, Jim Wormold is nervously told by his friend of 15 years to take the money but invent agents. Meanwhile Hawthorne is back in London telling the Chief that the new man in Havana is a successful local merchant with business contacts in the Cuban Government. This has a thread of truth, as Wormald's tiny shop is the only supplier of vacuum cleaners to the Havana official buildings. Using a copy of Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare as the base for coded messages, Wormold sends a list of unwitting local community members to be "traced" by London and receives the promised imbursement for them, along with expenses for his "office". At the same time, Hawthorne has persuaded his chief that Our Man in Havana should have a radio, together with an operator on hand, in order to efficiently and securely conduct the business of spying. Things are getting out of control for Wormold and he is only too aware that he must soon show some results for all this organisation, not to mention the generous regular payments received. It is not long before London receives information that huge concrete platforms have been erected in the Cuban jungle and that mighty machines a
            re being transported by lorry to the edge of the forest. Wormold has forwarded detailed drawings of the machines and the dialogue between Hawthorne and his chief could have come straight out of "Yes Minister". It appears that the Air Ministry is very worried and can make neither head nor tail of the submitted drawings. They seem to think that one of them reminded them of a giant vacuum cleaner. "Fiendish, isn't it?" the Chief said. The ingenuity, the simplicity, the devilish imagination of the thing."........"See this one here six times the height of a man. Like a gigantic spray. And this - what does this remind you of?" Hawthorne said unhappily, "A two-way nozzle". "What's a two-way nozzle?" "You sometimes find them on a vacuum cleaner". Wormold is ordered to commission a pilot to fly over the site of the concrete platforms and photograph the mysterious machines. At the same time a secretary is dispatched to assist him in the form of the comely but dispensable Beatrice from the typing pool. From now on things take a sinister turn as Raol, the imaginary pilot hired by Wormold dies in suspicious circumstances and fiction begins to become reality for Wormold, the Cuban security authorities, poor Dr Hasselbacher and the lovely, under-rated Beatrice ( whose description bears a remarkable likeness to Sandra Bullock of "Cruise" fame). Grahame Greene captures the atmosphere of Cuba during these times and helps you build a comfortable (and occasionally uncomfortable) familiarity with Havana and it's citizens. Even the suspense has humour which had me chuckling out loud as the journey of a poisoned plate, diverted from himself at the European Traders annual dinner, is followed anxiously around the table by Wormold's eyes until it is set before the guest of honour. There are possibly subtle truths amid darkly am
            using dialogue as the dreaded Captain Segura explains to Wormold that there is a non-torturable class. "Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realise that there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement." Although I am not suggesting an influence, I do see shades of Somerset Maugham's inventive short stories in this book of only 219 pages and Greene's gift for character portrayal is every bit as easy on the imagination as Maugham's. The writing is straight forward, allowing your own sense of humour to respond and mine certainly did, although it took me 48 pages to really appreciate the satirical intention. I will not spoil the story for you by recounting how Jim's adventures end. Suffice it to say that we follow the bewildered Wormold as he is caught up in a succession of events which can only add to his anxiety; while his London employers consider their luck that such an able agent has fallen into their net. After the shifting vicissitudes of our hero and his luckless associates, the tale concludes satisfactorily and unstressfully for the reader in the way that all good stories should. I cannot say that Graham Greene has pulled out all the stops or that this is a greatly memorable book. For all that, I enjoyed it immensely and appreciate why it has gone down as a classic. Our Man in Havana is available from Amazon for £5.59 or may be borrowed from your local library...... although it may help if you can spell Havana. Footnote: Although Our Man in Havana is purely fiction, during WW2 a German spy in England did sit quietly and send invented information to his superiors.

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            Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, was short of money. His daughter had reached an expensive age - so he accepted Hawthorne's offer of $300-plus a month and became Agent 59200/5, MI6's man in Havana.