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Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

20 January 2009

Another foray into Graham Greene’s fiction, following on my reviews of The Quiet American and The Human Factor.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

For expatriate Englishman James Wormold, life in Fulgencio Batista’s Havana has long lost any of the exotic charm or tropical romance it might once have possessed. His wife left him many years ago, leaving him responsible for raising their daughter Milly, and although he manages to keep his business as a vacuum cleaner salesman afloat, he cannot give Milly all of the little (and not-so-little) treats that she asks for. Fearful of the looming overdraft in his bank book, Wormold grasps at the first outside opportunity that presents itself to him: when a smooth-talking Englishman by the name of Hawthorne offers him a sizeable sum of money to work for British intelligence in Cuba, he hesitates for only a moment before accepting both the offer and the cash. Yet to keep the money coming in, Wormold has to provide information to pass along to London — and so he begins to fabricate an entire network of semi-real and entirely imaginary ‘agents’ in Cuba. Thanks to the work of his agents, he even provides his superiors with the design plans of a new secret weapon supposedly being assembled in Cuba. (Strange, though, that the plans for the secret weapon should bear a strong resemblance to sketches of the parts of a vacuum cleaner….) As Wormold’s half-truths and utter lies become more and more detailed, his superiors in London could not be more pleased with the professional output of their man in Havana, whose information allows them to show up the efforts of their counterparts on either side of the Cold War. But as the fiction begins to create its own increasingly dangerous reality, Wormold soon realises that he has no choice but to finish the game he started to play — before someone else decides to finish it for him.

The plot of Our Man in Havana draws heavily upon Greene’s work for British intelligence during and shortly after World War II. In particular, Wormold’s position as a real agent in charge of fictional agents owes a good deal to the story of the real World War II double agent known as GARBO, a Spanish citizen who fabricated an elaborate network of subagents through which British intelligence passed false information to GARBO’s ostensible superiors in the Abwehr. For that matter, for a book first published in 1958, the story’s talk of revolutionaries in the hills and (real or fictional) secret military installations on Cuban soil is more than a little prescient. But Greene’s focus is on the absurdities of the intelligence game, especially the notion of the ‘gentleman spy’ so beloved of espionage fiction writers like Ian Fleming, and he wastes few opportunities to skewer or invert many of the genre conventions of which Fleming and others were so fond.

The historical background and parody status notwithstanding, Our Man in Havana falls a little flat in its execution. The pragmatic female character introduced halfway through the story may as well have had ‘eventual love interest’ stamped across her forehead from the outset, in spite of Greene’s attempts to break the convention and fashion her into a spirited woman who can hold her own with the men around her. The final confrontation scenes, in which Wormold must elude both the Cuban authorities and the real (and far more deadly) intelligence operatives working in Havana, are quite good but seem somewhat strained in context, as if Greene himself found it difficult to switch gears to write them. Several scenes are indeed amusing from an enjoyably farcical perspective, and the plot wraps up neatly in the best happy-family comedy style, but as a work of espionage fiction Our Man in Havana has a hard time measuring up to the literary, thematic, character, or plot standards of Greene’s more serious The Quiet American or The Human Factor. Which is not to say that it is not worth reading — Greene’s sly commentary on expatriate life and satirical approach to the genre makes Our Man in Havana as much of an ‘entertainment’ as the book’s original subtitle suggests.

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