James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power cuts, is short on money and has a teenage daughter with expensive tastes. When he's approached by the MI-6 to become an agent, he reluctantly takes the lucrative job and soon begins fabricating wild reports, inventing bogus recruits, and dreaming up secret military constructions out of vacuum cleaner designs. But his deceptions soon start becoming disturbingly real.
Greene's book is a speedy read, partly because so much of it is dialogue. The talk is full of clever ambiguities, and I found it easy to imagine as a well-constructed play for the stage. Evidently, the 1959 film adaptation with Alec Guiness in the lead was successful. It's clearly a classic of Cold War English "intelligence" fiction, one that would pair nicely with Deighton's Ipcress File, a slightly later and much darker tale, but one of comparable length and pacing.
This black comedy is set in Havana between 1952 and 1959, during the Batista regime. James Wormold, a middle-aged vacuum cleaner retailer is approached by Hawthorne, who recruits him to work for the British secret service. Wormold lives with his sixteen going on seventeen year-old, beautiful and devoutly Catholic daughter, Milly. Wormold business isn't going well enough to finance Milly's extravagances, so he accepts the offer, but he has no information to send London, so he starts faking his reports, invents a fictitious network of agents, and also sends sketches of vacuum cleaner parts, claiming they represent a secret military installation being built in the mountains. In London, nobody suspects anything, except Hawthorne so they decide he needs a bigger staff and send Wormold a secretary, Beatrice Severn, along with a radio assistant, which is when real complications ensue.
This is the first time that I've regretted choosing the audio version instead of a physical book. The narrator was very good, but the producers ought to be shot. Someone decided that it would be really amusing to dump loud Salsa music sequences between sections to add an additional Cuban flavour. Dozen of times. I really enjoyed the first Graham Greene book I read, The Tenth Man, and found him to be a deeply sensitive and insightful writer; so I've learned my lesson and will take the time to actually read his books from now on. Of course, these distractions seriously curtailed my enjoyment of what is really quite a funny plot. I would probably have given the book four stars, but would rate the overall production 1.5 star at most, considering I was ready to give up the first time I heard that blasted music. I finally came to what I think is a reasonable compromise. I'll revise my rating as needed if and when I do read the actual book.
Greene sets this deceptively light comedy, by turns funny and frightening, in Havana just before the last revolution. Rebels are in the hills; spies of all countries want to know everything about them, and each other. Jim Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is recruited in the most casual way by British Secret Service; he is bewildered by the job but enticed by the money, having a daughter with expensive tastes and great manipulative skills. Pressed to report, he decides to become creative, with increasingly woeful results. People who don't even know they are involved in Wormold's fantasy tradecraft find themselves in harm's way; the not-so-secret Cuban police are everywhere, and finally our man in Havana has to become wise in a hurry to save his own skin.
But I wouldn't call this a caper. Some of the musings are too serious for that. Underneath the 'entertainment', Greene is pondering the big questions of faith, purpose, meaning, and loyalty, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes with a snarl.
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 his fate. (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.
The author also had a keen nose for a rotten regime, setting the story in Cuba just before the Cuban revolution revealed the fragility of Fulgencio Batista's regime. Greene sets up a wonderful cast of protagonist types whose predictable behavior still doesn't prematurely reveal the plot. Recommended.
Among the reasons I like this book is the great set of characters. There is the vacuum cleaner salesman turned spy Wormold, his daughter Milly who is especially Catholic when in need of a favor, the German Dr Hasselbacher who still finds the time to see a few patients while drinking the rest of the day, a brutal Cuban police captain who divides people into a 'torturable' and a 'non-torturable' class, and secretary Beatrice who falls in love with Wormold on first sight. This makes for a cast for a humorously written Cuban spy story that manages to entertain as well as to criticize. Greene succeeds in taking his readers to 1958 Havana and experience Cuba, the spy business and one small character finding his way in the big intelligence arena. Greene probably gave one of the best fitting descriptions of Our Man in Havana himself when he said that it "was potentially a very funny plot which if it comes off will make a footnote to history."
Our Man in Havana is a great novel. It made we want to know more about Wormold, read more stories about him. It made me want to go to Havana. I love it when a book does that to me. 4.5 stars.
This entertainment is particularly enjoyable. It contains all the usual Greene tropes assembled in the most appealing manner. The characters are thin and tremendously enjoyable. The dialogue is drily witty and occasionally hilarious. There are tragic deaths and miserable lives. Minor characters are, inevitably, killed but not for the usual Hollywood reasons. Rather their deaths are utterly tragic and symbolic of the casualties of global conflict. There are cynical policemen and alcoholics of every profession. As in "The Ministry of Fear" and "The Third Man" the protagonist's minor actions set into motion important and inevitably tragic events. He gets the girl, but soberly, and in a mad, arbitrary, and merciless world.
Jeremy Northam's reading is excellent.
Because this IS Graham Greene, the character development is a step above the norm: the main character, Wormold, is delightfully unexpected; his daughter is engagingly manipulative; and even the corrupt chief of police, a man who carries around a cigarette case fashioned from human skin, turns out to be something more than the cartoon characiture of a bad guy that he might have become in a less gifted author's hands. And it's not only espionage that falls victim to Greene's wit: he also throws satiric darts at such deserving targets as Catholicism, Americans, Cuban culture, and do-gooder international organizations, to name a few.
In summary, thoroughly recommend this to anyone who enjoys their humor with a dose of intellectualism. I've read it twice already, and can imagine picking it up again sometime in the future!
Not having any interest in being a secret agent, he makes up fictitious agents and reports which are sent to London. Before long he becomes boldly creative with his reports so much so that London thinks Cuba is on the cusps of a revolutionary war. They send additional staff to aid their star agent and thereafter things start to spin out of control. When some people are killed, he realizes this is no longer a game ans tries to come clean .....but someone wants to kill him. Oh and the Chief of Police in Havana, a man known to carry a coin purse made out the skin of a man he tortured, wants to marry his daughter.
One of the best satirical comedies I've read in a long time. Bravo!
Marred by an epilogue that is preachy in a way the book is not.
The close connections between the British Secret Service and writers of fiction in real life (Ian Fleming for example) sharpen the satire and make me think that Wormold's experiences might not be that far away from the reality of the spying network in the mid-20th century!
Wormold himself is an interesting character, a passive man who just seems to take everything that's thrown at him and ends up in a much better position than before. But there's also a lot of unknowns about him. How did he end up in Cuba? What happened between him and his wife to make her run off?
An excellent preface by Christopher Hitchens was worth reading on its own.
This was the first book I've read by Greene and if this is any indication of how enjoyable the rest of his work is, it won't be the last.
Greene raises a number of interesting questions at the end, including the sense in fighting for something as uninspiring as an economic system. Not only are the methods of the MI6 questioned, but also their mid-20th century motivations.
Not only does his handler fall for his reports, but the “experts” back at MI6 think they are genuine and valuable. He falsifies reports of some kind of construction going on as witnessed by an alcoholic pilot. Then he submits some “technical drawings” that are nothing except slightly altered schematics of vacuum cleaner parts. Some of the people who see these drawings find them somewhat familiar, but cannot or will not believe that they are anything but what they seem to be – the drawings of covert munitions or some kind of military equipment.
I didn’t know what to make of Beatrice. MI6 sends her to be Wormold’s secretary and presumably she has experience at this kind of work, but when she gets there and Wormold begins to show her his “work product” she seems to think it’s impressive rather than bogus. Perhaps she doesn’t have much experience. Then again, her comments about her prior postings being boring and full of filing and letter-writing, perhaps she does have experience but the whole business of spying is so ludicrous as to look farcical even when it is in earnest. It is this difference that makes Wormold’s industriousness of reports and sub-agent cultivation seem like the genuine article. But we know from our first sight of her that she has a good sense of humor and mischievousness and when she learns of his fake spying, we somehow know she will forgive him.
The writing was frank and clear with just a dash of spice. I loved how Wormold is presented as a very straight-laced and kind of old world gentleman. He is appalled at Hawthorne’s slang (I didn’t even notice it until complained of). He treats Milly simultaneously as a child and a grown woman. He is suspicious of the police Captain Seugura, but also trusting of him. Dichotomies abound.
In the end though, one of his deepest character traits comes out in decisive action – the killer. The assassin. Wormold kills the other agent that set him up to be exposed and murdered. This sets up the chance for he and Beatrice to be together as a couple and Wormold’s formidable incompetence is not punished, but is rewarded by MI6 who gives him a better position, an O.B.E. and a raise. They know somehow that he’s an idiot, but admitting it would result in they themselves looking foolish and they are not willing to risk it.