Our Man In Havana (Graham Greene)

Havana, frozen as it is in time since 1959, is a special, exciting and fascinating place to be. The Havana described by Greene from this 1950s slice of fiction is still very much there to see, albeit in its 21st Century version. Anyway, this light hearted novel is uncannily reminiscent of The Tailor of Panama. A spymaster and an expat on the ground in Cuba manage to concoct between them, but entirely without each other’s knowledge, a fantasy international plot, which allows the “source” to receive generous ex-gratis payments, and the spy to convince his masters in the UK that he is doing something useful, thus worthy of a generous budget. The joke wears off when people start to get killed; but they’ve started so they have to finish.

A brilliant, hilarious read of espionage and pompous civil servants who are so inept they’re not fit to run a chip shop. Perhaps not so funny if you’ve worked for the civil service and you realize that the story is entirely feasible. Our Man in Havana is a delightful farce that manages to be serious and laugh out loud funny at the same time. Here Greene has written a story of a British citizen (Wormold) living in Havana during the time of the extremely corrupt Batista regime. He is a dour middle aged vacuum cleaner salesman with a bombshell 16 year old daughter, Milly, whose burgeoning sexuality is at odds with her Catholic morality: something she has inherited from her mother who has run off with another man. Wormold is described by his daughter as a pagan. Milly is a high maintenance “princess”, her demands on his finances makes the offer from Hawthorne of MI6– to become an “agent”– irresistible.

Soon Wormold is creating a complex yet hilarious series of reports for London of spy activities with fictional characters and drawings of vacuum cleaner attachments being passed off as sophisticated Russian atomic weaponry. It all starts to unravel when the fiction of his reports become a reality, with real versions of fictional characters being killed in mysterious circumstances. This is satire at its finest. Greene highlights beautifully the hypocrisy and deception of the spy “industry”, given greater credence by virtue of Greene’s own background in this life. Just as he foresaw the Americanization of the Vietnam conflict in his classic, The Quiet American, here there are hints (this book was written in 1958) of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. This is a brilliant piece of work (written by an ex-MI6 spy) and I recommend it to anyone with a love of humourous, satirical spy tales with depth and a sense of history. 🙂

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