Our Man in Havana: BBC Radio 4 Full-cast Dramatisationby Published 1 Jan
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Wormold is making a precarious living as a vacuum cleaner salesman in 1950s' Havana. But as the political tensions heat up, he worries that his teenage daughter Milly might be left prenniless if anything happens to him. So when a polite Englishman offers him $300-plus a month, he quickly agrees to the proposed arrangement and becomes Agent 59200/5 - M6's man in Havana. The money comes at a price, however, and as Wormold isn't keen on spying he creates imaginary reports based on Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare and sketches millitary installations based on drawings of the insides of vacuum cleaners. As his creations become incresingly involved and elaborate, strange things begin happening - his imaginary creations develop the disturbing habit of turning into fact.
"Our Man in Havana: BBC Radio 4 Full-cast Dramatisation " Reviews
This is one of Graham Greene’s thrillers which he labeled as “entertainments” as a warning to his audience not to take these books seriously. Our Man in Havana definitely needs such a warning. There is no reason to take the book seriously at all.
The plot is promising. Havana vacuum cleaner Wormold, owner of an Havana vacuum cleaner shop, hard-pressed to satisfy the expensive tastes (horses, country club) of his beautiful, manipulative (and motherless) teenage daughter, decides—when recruited by MI6—to pad his espionage expense account by inventing agents and mysterious government installations. This works well for him, until the real-life model for one of his imaginary agents is found shot to death. Suddenly, his serviceable fictions have become unfortunately real.
The book has other pleasures or virtues in addition to its clever plot.. The Havana atmosphere is vivid, particularly the tawdry parts of the city, the dialogue is witty and diverting, and the climax—in which our hero stalks a killer who has been assigned to kill him—is not without excitement. Many of the scenes are funny, and the way Greene presents his hero as simply another variety of fiction provides opportunity for revealing observations and asides.
But an entertainment, however unserious, demands some sense of danger, and whatever dangerousness the first part of the book created for me, the latter part of the book dissipated. Although this is a curious thing to say, I believe the sense of danger began to dissipate as soon as the bodies began to fall.
Part of the reason for this is that Our Man in Havana is set in the sunset days of Batita's Cuba. Castro and his rebels were already in the hills (although Greene does not mention this), and one of the characters, Captain Segura, who is known to be one of Batista’s torturers, seeks Wormold’s daughter Milly in marriage. Thus Wormold playing at spies—particularly in this place, at this time—seems like an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do, both for himself and for his daughter. Yet not long after the first “agent” is killed, Greene begins to exploit the situation for romance, laughs, and adventure. It was then I realized that Greene took his plot much less seriously than I did, and I began—little by little—to lose interest in the book.
Still, the book was entertaining, with some laughs, some thrills, and an interesting discussion of what are good reasons for engaging in violence (hint: working for Batista or for MI6 are not acceptable choices). All, in all, a good way to spend a couple of hours or so--provided you are willing (at least for brief while) not to take dictatorships, torture, revolution, and murder too seriously.
I had come across two lists mentioning the top 100 mystery/crime novels some time back. Both the lists - one by Britain-based Crime Writers' Association and the other by Mystery Writers of America, contained multiple books by Graham Greene. You can find both the lists here Link. The CWA list was published in 1990 and the MWA list in 1995. Pretty long time back but the books included are very fine specimens of crime writing.
I had read Greene's The Human Factor long time back and for some reason that book did not impress me much. But this one was simply brilliant!
The edition I got from my library contained an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Reading this introduction I got some insights about the author and how his childhood and beliefs influenced his works. Hitchens also says that John Le Carre had been influenced by Greene.
Greene had a victim of bullying in his childhood and this exerted no little influence on his works. His pro-Communist sympathies, dependence on alcohol, his rejection of the notion of patriotism, anti-American sentiments all are present in his books.
Hitchens also mentioned Greene's "..... spooky prescience when it came to the suppurating political slums on the periphery of America's Cold War empire." I would suggest that you check out this book and The Quiet American if you want to understand more.
Anyways, let us go to the story. The protagonist is Jim Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner saleman whose business is not doing well and whose daughter Milly had a knack of spending his money with a skill that "amazed" Wormold. Our hero is not a forceful character, it seemed to me that he, like the author, had been a victim of bullying- he is gratified when his daughter set a bully on fire and oh yes - his wife has left him for another man as well.
Wormold gets an offer to be recruited by a British agent to spy for the British Intelligence and after some initial reluctance he agrees because he needed the money for Milly's education. So he invents a false spy ring and starts feeding rubbish to British Secret Service.
There are some other interesting characters as well. Wormold's daughter Milly, Captain Segura and Dr. Hasselbacher.
Milly is a good/bad adolescent girl who is a staunch Catholic on one hand and can be a bit of a "tart" on the other.
Captain Segura of the Cuban Police is a pretty intimidating character.
Dr. Hasselbacher is the person for whom one would feel sympathy.
Greene's contempt for the British spy agency has been brilliantly presented throughout the novel - some parts are actually funny if not hilarious.
Very soon the little fraud by Wormold escalates in to something dangerous and people start dying. Betrayal, deception, subterfuge, greed, confusion, manipulation - the elements have so nicely used by the author. There is a scene -involving a certain man and his "lady" problems which was actually hilarious.
I liked the way how the character of Wormwold evolved - from a harmless man to one who would use subterfuge to outwit Segura and even plan for revenge. This reluctance to know intimate details about the man he is trying to kill so that his intended victim - a killer himself, does not turn into a human being showed his moral scruples even when he was trying to avenge a friend. The scene where Wormwold would try to outwit Segura was wonderful.
The book is full of brilliant dialogues and statements. Initially I thought of including some of them, but later I felt I should not spoil your pleasure if you plan to read it someday. In my humble opinion, the writing is excellent.
I simply have to recommend this book to fans of John Le Carre's style of thrillers. There are no fancy gadgets, car chases, femme fatales but you get a good story and some fine writing.
While reading the blurb of the book I was reminded of The Tailor of Panama by John Le Carre. Later I found articles which stated that Le Carre was indeed influenced by this book. You can refer to the articles by NY Times (Link) and The Guardian (Link) if you are interested.
Greene divided his own fiction between the novels and stories he considered more serious, such as The Heart of the Matter, and those he viewed as lighter "entertainments." This relatively short (247 pages --and not all of them with text) novel is one of the latter; and like many of the "entertainments" it draws on the author's World War Ii experiences as a spy for Britain's M-16 intelligence agency. (And it's obvious here that these weren't experiences he looked back on fondly.) Set in pre-Castro Cuba, it also draws on Greene's personal observations from his time in Cuba in 1957, when he was secretly smuggling warm clothing to Castro's rebels in the eastern hills. (He apparently continued to admire Castro until Greene's own death in 1991, though by 1983 he had come to have second thoughts about the Cuban dictator's authoritarianism.) Despite its supposedly "lighter" tone, however, this book does make philosophical statements. It also reflects Greene's status as an ambivalent and not very saintly Catholic, who was particularly disassociated from the Church's teaching on sexual morality because of his numerous extramarital affairs; Catholicism here is mainly represented by the protagonist's teenage daughter, who's outwardly scrupulous about the minutia of religious observance, but very far from modeling responsibility and altruism.
Stylistically, this book has certain things in common with the earlier one I cited above (and which is the only other Greene novel I've read). Greene wrote well, in that his prose flows quickly, he tells an attention-holding and often suspenseful story, and that he's insightful regarding human character and interactions when he's trying to be serious. It also has in common with the other book the fact that despite the relatively exotic setting, there's little sense of a physical and cultural setting outside of the transplanted bubble of the expatriate Europeans, and what we observe of the non-European world is primarily sordid; we get the impression that the primary industry of 1957 Havana was prostitution/pornography. (What aspects of an unfamiliar place a foreign observer actually observes, of course, may tell us more about the observer than about the place itself.) Afro-Cubans are twice designated, by sympathetic characters, with the n-word (one usage slaps you over the head as the very second word in the first sentence), a term that appears in the older book as well. But this book differs in that it often tries for a tone of satirical humor in places; too often, it tries too hard, making the dialogue ridiculous and the characters and situations unrealistic caricatures, and the juxtaposition of the serious and the satirically humorous doesn't always gel.
Greene's main philosophical message here seems to be that any loyalty higher than that to family and friends --particularly, any abstract loyalty such as patriotism or support for a social principle-- is misguided and misplaced. To be sure, loyalty to human beings we love will naturally, for most of us, take precedence over loyalty to abstractions; and when it comes to guiding our actions, moral principle must always trump political or social agendas. (It should also trump family interests --swindling a bureaucracy out of money doesn't become moral if we're doing it for a son or daughter, though Greene here may come close to suggesting that it does.) But the wall-to-wall cynicism of Greene's view of the Cold War, as purely a struggle for power between morally equivalent shady rivals, which decent people would be better off to ignore, doesn't ultimately convince this reader. (And I lived through much of the Cold War period, being born in 1952.) In the broader landscape of espionage fiction, Greene's worldview is much like le Carre's in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (though the latter book is a lot more serious), rather than, say, Manning Coles.' But in hindsight, most people in the captive populations behind the Iron Curtain might well have had a perspective more similar to Coles' (while not canonizing M-16 and the CIA).
When I was a youngster I read a lot of Graham Greene. This one feels to me to be less typical, Catholicism isn't such a feature and guilt isn't quite such an overwhelming presence as in some of his other novels. By contrast this is fairly light.
It's an enjoyable read and there's a value that still seems fairly relevant in it's message of being mindful of the potential sources of intelligence information.
Greene seems to have suffered a fall in Grace as according to the county library catalogue he is not even on the shelves any more, perhaps other writers meet the public need for neo-Catholic guilt and religious strivings today?
Graceless, gormless Wormold, a British sales agent for an American vacuum cleaner company in barely pre-Revolution Havana, has a problem. His adolescent daughter Milly, a manipulative and materialistic minx, spends well beyond his paltry earnings in her quest to ensnare the Red Vulture. That's a person, not a bird, one Captain Segura, who is the police torturer and possessor of a cigarette case covered in human skin. (An assertion Milly makes but Segura denies.) Wormold is fighting a losing battle, trying to sell a home appliance that's less useful than a broom in a country that's teetering on the brink of collapse. The power goes off too often to make it a sensible purchase, despite Wormold's trips to Cienfuegos (the Cuban Navy's main port) and points east (where the Revolutionary Army is strongest) to drum up business. What he *does* drum up is the interest of the state security apparatus. You see, Wormold is a British spy.
Good heavens, not a real one! He was worrying his way through a daily daiquiri with his German friend Dr. Hasselbacher when a Brit called Hawthorne inveigles him into the bathroom. That sounds, well, louche is I suppose the least offensive term, but it's what happens so have a séance and take it up with Greene if it's too sordid for you. What Hawthorne wants, I suppose, is a reason to visit Havana from his base in more-staid Kingston, Jamaica. (In 1958, when the book takes place, Havana was the Las Vegas of the Caribbean.) It also doesn't hurt his standing with MI6 to have a sub-agent in uneasy, revolution-bound Cuba. Wormold gets the nod, though to be honest I don't see a single reason why...oh wait...Milly the Minx is spending Daddy into bankruptcy (her initial salvo when we meet her is to demand a horse to go with the saddle she's just bought) so of course Wormold is in need of funds. Money always talks to men with debts.
From that match-to-fuse moment, a farce of atomic power begins to whirl from one end of the world to the other. Some sage adivce given to Wormold by WWI veteran Hasselbacher, to make his reports to London out of whole cloth on the principle that no one can disprove a lie, leads to Wormold's entire life being turned upside down. As he hurries from fire to fire atop an ever-increasing reactor fire of anxiety-into-terror, Wormold's lies begin to morph into the truth. Hawthorne's sub-agent becomes London's Agent of the Month, so to speak, as the wildly inventive reports he files bear fruit. As the book was written long before the events of the Missile Crisis, it really seems as though Greene was prescient: He has Wormold invent secret bases where mysterious equipment (drawings attached to his report were actually of a scaled-up vacuum cleaner) was being assembled. MI6 wants photos, of course; Raul the pilot (an invented sub-agent of Wormold's) suddenly dies in a crash. This is evidence that Wormold is onto something, obviously.
More and more of Wormold's fabulous reports are borne out as his "contacts" begin to suffer for his lies. Wormold himself comes in for assassination by the Other Side! He averts his fate, being a devout coward, and then has to do the worst-imaginable thing to escape retribution. (Read it, you'll see.) In the end, Greene can't design a better fate for Wormold and Milly than the one he puts on the page. It's perfect, it flows naturally from what's happened in the story, and it's hilarious. The humor of this book, like most of Greene's work, is dark to black. Be warned that there is little of this sixty-year-old send-up of National Security run amok that isn't viewable as critical of the State from 2019's perspective as well. Is that sad or inevitable, or perhaps both?
My favorite moment in the story comes when Wormold, busily inventing actions for his fictitious sub-agents to get up to, muses on the creative process:
Sometimes he was scared at the way these people grew in the dark without his knowledge.
Beautifully said, Author Greene. Just beautiful. And so very true.