Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Greene: Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene (2004) Our Man in Havana Vintage Books, London; 225 pp.; ISBN 978-0-099-28608-0.

In 1986-87, the British government made a great fuss trying to stop global publication of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. While publicity surrounding the book made much of revelations about a planned assassination of the Egyptian president and CIA support for attempts to bring down the Wilson government in the United Kingdom, the vast majority of the book when it was released in 1987 showed in fact how mundane and puerile most ‘intelligence’ work really is. The so-called secret or sensitive information could have been more easily, accurately and quickly obtained by a well-trained journalist or anthropologist, and the analysis of information was so clouded by prejudice and a perverted interpretation of ‘the national interest’ that is was generally useless in predicting or understanding significant world events. That remains very much the case today, as it did when Graham Greene first published this novel in 1958.

Set in Cuba as the old regime was crumbling, the story tells how an ineffectual vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, allows himself to become an informant for British intelligence. Jim is only after some money in order to ensure financial security for his precocious daughter Milly, and perhaps a way to leave behind a lifestyle that he senses has no future. Jim hasn’t got a clue how to fix it, so begins to invent agents and, using crude drawings of vacuum cleaner parts, to weave a fantasy story of a base with atomic weaponry hidden in the hills of Cuba. Hmm, did someone mention weapons of mass destruction?

Driven as they are by gossip, rumour and wet dreams of conspiracy, the intelligence bods lap up Jim’s confections. Various opposing spy agencies – we are never sure which ones – get in on the act. Jim’s closest drinking pal, the German Dr Hasselbacher (a regular in the wonderful Wonder Bar), comes under suspicion, along with Milly’s unsuitable suitor, police captain Segura. As events become more complicated, the farce grows dense and increasingly dark. Various innocents and the not-so-innocent end up dead, insignificant extras in a grander melodrama.

Jim Wormold’s great lie is eventually found out by British intelligence, but faced with the shame of exposing their stupidity, the spies opt for a solution where Jim gets a decent job, keeps the money he has wormed out of them, and receives a nomination for an OBE into the bargain. At this point you wonder if the novel is completely fictional.

Despite the high farce of the story, Greene raises some serious points about the corrosive poison of nationalism and loyalty to a country, and the idiocy of the British when they try to do ‘the right thing’ to save face. He makes a somewhat half-hearted case for a loyalty based on love, but Greene was such a sceptic about the human condition that he cannot bring himself to argue the point forcefully. You are never really sure if Jim will end up with Beatrice Severn, the secretary spy who openly acknowledges she works in a Boy’s Own Paper world.

This is one of a series of Greene novels re-issued in Vintage Classics paperbacks. His writing is still crisp and focused, and he has a deft way of conveying character and situations in a few well-chosen words.

A year after the book’s original release, communists led by Fidel Castro seized government in Cuba. The same year a film was made of the novel, some of it shot on location there. Castro visited the set, perhaps amused by the irony of it all. The film put a little too much emphasis on the farcical side of the story and looks dated now, but reading Our Man in Havana remains a pleasure I highly recommend.

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