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Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
Member Name: aefra
Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene
Date: 12/03/03, updated on 12/03/03 (636 review reads)
Advantages: Original and easy reading
"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.