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Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
Member Name: Mauri
Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
Date: 10/11/11, updated on 11/11/11 (126 review reads)
Advantages: A very good read, intelligently plotted and with great characters.
Disadvantages: Not as highly rated as it should be.
'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.
© Mauri 2011
Summary: A failing vacuum cleaner salesman is drawn into the world of cold war espionage