The Reading Room

Our Man in Havana

Review of Graham Greene’s classic Book….

Last week’s movie choice was The Tailor of Panama, the adaptation of the John Le Carré novel which, by his own admission, owes much to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The ‘inspiration’ is clear to see from the start and continues into the heart of the story which is classic Greene.

The book was published in 1958 during Batista’s rule over Cuba, Castro and the Cuban missile crisis were events waiting to happen and yet Greene’s inclusion of missile installations in the story seems to predict what would catapult the small island to the front of world affairs in 1962. There is little in the book to reflect life under Batista’s regime, Greene came under criticism for this, not least from Castro himself but Greene insisted that as a black comedy, the central thrust of the story was to poke fun at the British Intelligence Services rather than a political stance against the Cuban dictator.

I agree with Greene’s sentiments, the book is a light-hearted look at how a chancer takes on a role as a so-called spy in order to get himself out of financial difficulties brought on, in large part, by his persuasive and spoilt seventeen year old daughter, Milly. It isn’t as politically or religiously charged as his other works yet the main players in the story retain the usual Greene-style characteristics. Wormold is Greene’s ‘Man in Havana’, a down-on-his-luck vacuum cleaner salesman, abandoned by his wife and left to raise their daughter who uses Wormold’s guilt to secure her latest extravagances.

Enter Hawthorne, recruiter for British Intelligence who gives Wormold little choice but to join up, it’s comedy gold as the two talk in the toilet of Wormold’s watering hole and a style not lost on Pierce Brosnan who played Andy Osman in The Tailor of Panama. Exit Hawthorne who himself is under pressure to prove his worth to his superiors in London and despite being the only one who doesn’t believe Wormold’s ‘commitment’ to the cause he chooses to ignore the signs and take credit for finding an agent in Cuba. And so the deception begins, Wormold has no contacts and has no intention of finding any, he sets about creating characters and situations in order to extract more expenses until his paymasters send Beatrice Severn to Havana to work as his ‘secretary’ and meet his network of spies.

The web of deceit gets ever more entangled, Wormold’s characters and his plots for them spill over into coincidental reality making his story more believable. He is then coerced into helping ‘real’ people with the same names as his characters who are themselves victims of threats and attack. It is at once both a farce and an exaggerated play on the comedy of errors that was the intelligence services during the Cold War period. Greene must have seen for himself the myriad of characters who played their part in the Great Game during his tenure in British Intelligence and had his own doubts about the validity of the information he would have come across. Espionage has long played on the misfortune of others to gain its dirty footholds inside foreign interests and Wormold and his need for money perfectly encapsulates that first rule of spy recruitment.

Eventually Wormold caves and confesses all to Beatrice who reports him to London. Deported by the police chief Segura, he finds himself back in London and in front of his spy paymasters who, in preference to him talking to the press, give him a job as a teacher and recommend him for an OBE! How many times has that happened one wonders? Greene was an author with more than an eye for a film script and so, in this comedy the story has the happy ending a film in the late 50s would have required. For all of that though, its central thrust against the competence of the British Secret Service should not be overlooked. Greene knew and saw too much for this to be as far-fetched as one might perceive it to be.

In an ominous nod to the cruelties of Batista’s regime, Greene gives us Segura; head of police, a man with an unhealthy interest in Wormold’s daughter and possessor, it is claimed, of a wallet made of human skin. Here Greene touches on the practice of torture under a dictatorship such as Batista’s with Segura’s nonchalance at torturing a member of the “tortureable class.”

Our Man in Havana captured the Cold War period of its time, it is a reminder of Greene’s prowess as an author who could use satire to hit out at governments and institutions with remarkable effect. For Le Carré to have used this as a template for his book to the extent in which he did should prompt the spy fiction enthusiast to read or revisit this book. But like so many of Greene’s books it transcends genre’s and manages to preserve its rightful place in the history of classic fiction.

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