I recently finished reading Graham Greene’s novel, Our Man in Havana, about a British vacuum cleaners salesmen in Cuba who turn into a spy by accident. Greene considers this novel as a comedy written to entertain and not a serious piece of literature. He makes fun of intelligence services, especially the British MI6, and their willingness to believe reports from their local informants. The book predates the Cuban Missile Crisis, but certain aspects of the plot, notably the role of missile installations, seem to anticipate the events of 1962 which almost brought us to total annihilation as a result of an atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The novel, a black comedy, is set in Havana during the Fulgencio Batista regime. Our Man in Havana was published on October 6, 1958 almost one year before Fidel Castro triumphantly descended from the sierras and villages and seized the city of Havana on New Year’s Day 1959. The revolution did indeed come to Cuba, and the Captain Seguras did indeed take themselves off to Miami, and for a while Green himself was an honored guest of—and ardent apologist for—the Fidel Castro regime.
Greene knew that Fulgencio Batista’s regime was crumbling and that it would soon come to and end. He wrote:
“No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe’s because it was the rendezvous of tourists; but tourists were sadly reduced nowadays in number, for the President’s regime was creaking dangerously towards its end.”
Greene was not in fact neutral in the Cold War, nor a practitioner of moral equivalence. He was by inclination a supporter of the “other side” and above all culturally and political hostile to the United States.
Throughout his life, Greene travelled far from England, to what he called the world’s wild and remote places. The travels led to his being recruited into MI6 by his sister, Elisabeth, who worked for the organisation; and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War. Kim Philby, who would later be revealed as a Soviet agent, was Greene’s supervisor and friend at MI6.
Although Greene objected strongly to being described as a Roman Catholic novelist and not as a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Catholic religious themes are at the root of much of his writing, especially the four major Catholic novels: Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair which are regarded as “the gold standard” of the Catholic novel. Several works such as The Confidential Agent, The Third Man, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana and The Human Factor also show an avid interest in the workings of international politics and espionage.
Greene joined MI6 in August 1941. In London, Greene had been appointed to the subsection dealing with counter-espionage in the Iberian peninsula, where he had learned about German agents in Portugal sending the Germans fictitious reports which garnered them expenses and bonuses to add to their basic salary. One of these agents was “Garbo”, a Spanish double agent in Lisbon, who gave his German handlers disinformation, by pretending to control a ring of agents all over England. In fact he invented armed forces movements and operations from maps, guides and standard military references. Garbo was the main inspiration for Wormold, the protagonist of Our Man In Havana.
Remembering the German agents in Portugal, Greene wrote the first version of the story in 1946, as an outline for a film script, with the story set in Estonia in 1938. The film was never made, and Greene soon realised that Havana—which he had visited several times in the early 1950s – would be a better setting, the absurdities of the Cold War being more appropriate for a comedy
Basically the comedy-novel is about is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts. His adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that amazes him, so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he’s tempted. In return all he has to do is carry out a little espionage and file a few reports. But when his fake reports start coming true, things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place.
The novel starts slow and lazy like the sizzling hot and humid days of the Tropics. In fact it was sometimes boring. Frequently I had to stop reading and return the next day expecting something more exciting to happen. Then it started to pick up steam when Wormold believed that he could become a full-fledged spy surrounded by a ghost spy ring. The climax of the novel was shooting a secret agent and the deportation of Wormold from Cuba.
Greene describes the fake British agent in the following tongue-in-cheek way: “He stood on the frontier of violence, a strange land he had never visited before; he had his passport in his hand. ‘Profession: Spy’ ‘Characteristic Features: Friendliness.’ ‘Purpose of Visit: Murder’ No visa was required. His papers were in order.”
The characters were lifeless, without much interest and personality—like dark silhouettes. Greene did little to inject them with a deep psychological analysis. In my opinion, the daughter, the doctor, the police captain and his secretary were like make-believe cartoons. The plot was superficial and lacked credibility. The purpose was to ridicule the British intelligence. And that he did with flying colors.
In more ways than one, Graham Greene sprayed his novel with his personal experiences in real life, (e.g., Roman Catholic religion, preference towards hard liquor, espionage, and a disregard for British intelligence.)
Greene describes the following scene in which two of the novel’s characters meet in a bar. “When they met in Sloppy Joe’s bar, Hawthorne surveys the range of bottles on offer and says:”
‘Eighteen different kinds of Scotch…including Black Label. And I haven’t counted the Bourbons. It’s a wonderful sight. Wonderful’ he repeated, lowering his voice with respect. ‘Have you ever seen so many whiskies?’
‘As a matter of fact I have. I collect miniatures and I have ninety-nine at home’.
“Wormold unfolded the draughts board. Then he arranged on the board twenty-four miniature bottles of whiskey: twelve Bourbon confronted twelve Scotch.”
There are several allusions of Greene’s Roman Catholic religious beliefs in the dark comedy novel, “The same invisible duenna saw to it that she ate fish on Friday, fasted on Ember Days and attended mass not only on Sundays and the special feasts of the church, but also on her saint’s day.”
What I enjoyed most about this book was the description of the nostalgic city of Havana in simple, easy to understand English words. Let me give you an example of what I mean by easy to understand English.
“After supper, they walked back along the landward side of the Avenida de Maceo. There were few people about in the wet windy night and little traffic. The rollers came in from the Atlantic and smashed over the sea-wall. The spray drove across the road, over the four traffic-lanes, and beat like rain under the pock-marked pillars where they walked. The clouds came racing from the east, and he felt himself to be part of the slow erosion of Havana. Fifteen years were a long time. He said, ‘One of these lights up there may be him. How solitary he must feel.’ ‘You talk like a novelist.’ she said.”
“He walked home. The long city lay spread along the open Atlantic; waves broke over the Avenida de Maceo and misted the windscreen of cars. The pink, grey,k yellow pillars of what had once been the aristocratic quarter were eroded like rocks; and ancient coat of arms, smudged and featureless, was set over the doorway of a shabby hotel, and the shutters of a nigh-club were vanished in bright crude colours to protect them from the wet and salt of the sea. In the west the steel skyscrapers of the new town rose higher than lighthoused into the clear February sky. 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 disaster. Time gives poetry to 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.”
The revolutionary government of Cuba allowed the film of Our Man in Havana to be filmed in the Cuban capital, but Fidel Castro complained that the novel did not accurately portray the brutality of the Batista regime.
“Alas, the book did me little good with the new rulers in Havana. In poking fun at the British Secret Service, I had minimized the terror of Batista’s rule. I had not wanted too black a background for a light-hearted comedy, but those who suffered during the years of dictatorship could hardly be expected to appreciate that my real subject was the absurdity of the British agent and not the justice of a revolution.”
Greene returned to Havana between 1963 and 1966, but his disagreement with the regime’s treatment of Catholics, intellectuals, and homosexuals left him at odds with the government, and his work is not commemorated in Cuba.
Overall, I did not enjoy reading Our Man in Havana; albeit there were flashes of good literature in the novel. I was expecting a more in-depth descriptions of the characters and of the political situation in Cuba at that time. After all, we were in the middle of the Cold War, on the brink of World War III with the possibility of a nuclear winter.
As an entertaining novel it’s okay. But if you’re looking for an action-filled novel, I suggest you look somewhere else. Having said this, I’m still willing to give Greene a second opportunity. My next book will be The Quiet American, the anti-war novel published in the United States in 1956.
Graham Green was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”.