Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene was so widely regarded as an author capable of creating a uniquely identifiable fictional universe that what we would call a brand name today has been used to describe the world of his literary creations:  Greenelandia.  His chief concerns were, in one form or another, religion and faith, and the many challenges to belief.  As a converted Catholic he analyzed dogma and doctrine as applied to the realities of a difficult and often grim existence.  But he was sensitive enough to the human condition to recognize that the Church’s doctrines weren’t the only set of rules and obligations a noble man might try to live by.

Greene himself distinguished between what he viewed as his more serious work and the mere ‘entertainments’ he penned.  These latter were referred to as comedies, but even these novels involved anguish and struggle, as well as plenty of dark humor.  Rather than ‘entertainments’ perhaps we should call works like Our Man in Havana Greenelandia-lite.

My own appreciation of the work of Graham Greene was long and slow in coming, since the first of his many books that I eventually read was one of these low calorie novels, Stamboul Train.  I was about twenty at the time, a wannabe writer and a heavy imbiber of both Dostoevsky and Faulkner.

Fortunately I returned to Greene and gave him another chance.  Over a decade I read most of what he had published, both heavy and lite, and novels like Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and especially The Quiet American all convinced me of the power and insight in this writer’s vision.

I mention these works and refer to Greene’s oeuvre as a whole because despite his classification of a book like Our Man in Havana as an ‘entertainment,’ Greene is either unwilling or incapable (I believe) of preventing himself from spilling onto the page some of that anguish that typifies his ‘Catholic’ novels.

Jim Wormold—a middle-aged worm of a man—is worried about his teenage daughter’s economic future.  He can never seem to make enough money to satisfy her appetite for things like a saddle and a pony.  Still married—his wife simply left him—and long-selling vacuum cleaners in Havana, he frets about Milly’s dowry and what might happen to her if he isn’t there to provide for her. 

But just as important—and in some ways more central to the internal drama, if not the plot of this book—is Wormold’s sense of invisibility. 

At every corner there were men who called ‘Taxi’ at him as though he were a stranger, and all down the Paseo, at intervals of a few yards the pimps accosted him automatically without any real hope…They had been mere children when he first came to Havana, they had watched his car for a nickel, and though they had aged alongside him they had never got used to him.

Even Wormold’s one friend, or long-time acquaintance, Dr. Hasselbacher, calls him by his surname, as if they barely knew each other, leading Wormold to reflect that on his “death-bed, when Dr. Hasselbacher came to feel his failing pulse, he would perhaps call him Jim.”

This lack of certainty about who he might be is typical of Greene’s brooding temperament.  When Wormold is made—almost against his will, but without offering any real resistance—a British agent, and comes to accept and justify the offer as a means of providing for Milly’s future, Wormold begins to invent the subagents he recruits and pocket their salaries and expenses.  The whole thing is a farce, but it ends up being taken seriously enough in the end to result in the deaths of men who are largely innocent.  And Wormold himself becomes the target of some ‘they.’

“Let’s assume,” says Beatrice—the woman sent by MI6 to be Wormold’s spy-secretary (and savior!)—that the people who have just knocked off a man with the same name as the imaginary agent Wormold claimed to have recruited, “are Russian agents, German agents, American, what?  Cuban very likely…Poor Raul.  I hope he died quickly.”  And in response Wormold is tempted—now that things are getting out of hand—to tell Beatrice everything, the truth.  “But what was ‘everything’?” he wonders.  “He no longer knew.”

So there is this added quixotic element to the story:  the windmills—or vacuum cleaners Wormold drew and passed off to MI6 as mysterious military installations in the east of the island, where Castro’s guerillas are operating in the Sierra Maestra—of Wormold’s imagination, that make it hard for him to know what to believe.

I read Our Man in Havana this second time because I wanted to see how much of the eve of what turned out to be a very important revolution was in this novel.  And I found that this being an ‘entertainment’ Greene limits himself to passing commentary on anything that was actually happening in Cuba at the time, although the background of his story—Havana in the fifties—is always there, the sex and temptation and all the violence. 

During a checkers game with the head of the secret police, Captain Segura (modelled in part on Captain Ventura, the actual head of SIM at the time), the Cuban military strongman courting Milly explains to Wormold who the “torturable class” are:

The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country.  The poor of Central Europe and the Orient.  Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable.  In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin American and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia.  It is an instinctive matter on both sides.  Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal.

So it isn’t as if no dark currents course through this novel.[i]  Instead, and oddly so I think, it’s as if Greene, while allowing brief glimpses of the background for his ‘entertainment’ manages to always deftly turn his readers’ attention away from the dangers lurking in the bush.  He relies upon rapid and often ironic dialogue, coming at sharp oblique angles, to keep his reader entertained.  And he allows at times that the wry humor be shot through with something more menacing and more typical of Greene, something always found, sooner or later, in even the most remote corners of Greenelandia.

Photograph by Christophe Meneboeuf [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

[i] In the second of two autobiographies he wrote, Greene addresses Castro’s complaint that he hadn’t painted a vivid enough portrait of 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 (Ways of Escape).