Our Man In Havana, by Graham Greene
I had read this book once before and enjoyed it–even if it did not prompt me to read more by the author at that time–and when I re-read it I enjoyed it at least as much as I had the first time in the context of being better acquainted with the author and his work. The fact that a book about the Cuban Revolution can be viewed as an “entertainment” is perhaps the sign of considerable boldness on the part of the author, for at its heart this book is a novel that shows both Greene’s almost occult sense of timing as well as his cynical and humorous anti-American tendencies. Although the author likely had sympathies for the wrong side of the Cold War, his focus on individuals rather than collectives meant that his novels are perfectly enjoyable by highly conservative (perhaps even right-wing) readers of a strongly individualist bent who like making fun of government secret intelligence agencies and their capacity for immense self-deception. James Bond, this is not . Even so, this is a light-hearted if thought-provoking view of a somewhat simple and decent man caught up in matters far beyond his comprehension.
The plot of the novel is as breezy as Graham Greene could concoct, where a British special intelligence handler coerces the impecunious Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, into serving as the MI’s titular man in Havana, and where Wormold’s creative attempts to make up something to earn his keep and keep his lovely teenage daughter in her horses and equipage while she deals with the unwelcome flirtation of the sinister Captain Segura end him in murderous intrigue when what he imagines and writes about ends up coming true. Innocent people, more or less, are caught up in the midst of the cloak and dagger world of secret intelligence and die or are harmed because of their association with Wormold, who barely escapes death on numerous occasions himself before finding a somewhat happy if deeply cynical ending. What makes the novel even more interesting is the way that Greene anticipates the Communist revolution in Cuba even before it happens, and looks at the perspective of police officers and spies and businessman and the ominous question of who counts as a member of the torturable class and who does not, a question that contemporary regimes would do well to ponder themselves.
This is the sort of novel that prompts a great deal of worthwhile questions for ordinary people. To whom should we be loyal? What obligations do we owe our countries, our families, and our communities? How do we deal with unwanted suitors? How do parents know when their children are grown up and sufficiently adult? I personally do not agree with all of the answers to these questions that Graham Greene supplies, but at the very least I think he deals with very worthwhile questions even if he deals with them in a frequently flippant and cynical and breezy manner. Whether or not these serious questions are even asked by many of the readers, or whether his viewpoint reflects badly on him as someone who for reasons of mammon disguised his true hostility to Americans (amply in evidence here, if in comic form) in order to profit from a reading audience that might have liked him a good deal less if he had been more honest about his worldview. Even so, his disguising of his true self allowed him to write about deception and self-deception with a great degree of skill and that is certainly something well worth appreciating.
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