Call Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene an espionage thriller. Call it a political satire. Call it a character study. All of those are accurate but best of all it’s a Monty Python sketch stretched to novel length: absurdity and that straight-faced, dry British humor thrive from the colorful and sunny Havana streets to the underground London headquarters of the British Secret Service.
Wormold is a struggling vacuum cleaner salesman. His daughter, Milly, desires a horse and a country club membership and who is Wormold to say no? But Wormold doesn’t have the money until a bewildering encounter in a men’s restroom. He knows nothing about spying but suddenly he is MI6’s man in Havana.
Wormold’s only friend is an aging German doctor with whom he shares a daily daiquiri. His daughter hitches a ride home from school with the police Captain, Segura, who advocates for torture and whose cigarette case is supposedly made from human skin. Segura is Wormold’s connection to people in power or secret information about the state but Wormold is, rightfully, terrified of him. With no access and no information, Wormold makes it up, assisted by some tabloids and his imagination. He charges expenses to the British government to pay informants who don’t. Milly has her horse and Wormold doesn’t have to sell as many vacuums. But, when a secretary shows up from London to assist him and his made-up reports start coming true, things come apart at the seams. Practically everyone, it turns out, is involved in this secret world that Wormold was also nominally part of. In the end, all of the characters in Our Man in Havana participate in the web of government and its paranoid assumptions. Everyone is complicit in wrong-doing. It is the dark underbelly of Our Man in Havana’s comic exterior.
Our Man in Havana is absurd and farcically comic and that’s likely what made it palatable to an anxious Cold War public at its 1959 publishing. But the novel’s absurdity reveals something else with time: Greene’s Havana is a world of day-drinking and whore houses and little else. The rebels in the mountains are dismissed as little more than fantasy. This is not possibly a country that could pose any real threat to America or England, despite being considered as such. Historically, Western leaders hugely overstated the threat of tiny Communist Cuba. But in a world where everything is a proxy for something else, and in Graham Greene’s world as well, how do you know what threats are real and what are, indeed, imagined?
Wormold only sort of gets his comeuppance by close of the novel, and he is changed by his experience, largely for the better. This is odd, because the rest of the book suggests that what one thinks is real is just a façade, that mistrust and untruth are the Cold War’s currency. However, “odd” is probably the ultimate descriptor of this delightfully comic novel with a dark and existentially anxious interior.
Up Next: Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Why? This is my favorite Latin teacher’s favorite book. He spent his recent sabbatical studying it and so I’m curious.