Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana.

NY: Viking, 1958.

Greene is best known (deservedly) for his serious “Catholic novels,” but he also was fascinated with the world of espionage, and he was perfectly capable of writing archetypal British dry humor. Put those together and you have a very funny book, set in the last days of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba. Mr. Wormold, a middle-aged ex-pat, runs the Cuban franchise for the Phastkleaner Company, purveyors of the Atomic Pile Vacuum Cleaner. Though there’s nothing actually “atomic” about it, as he has to keep explaining to nervous potential customers.

He’s been in Havana a long time, having married a local girl who subsequently left him and ran off to New York. Now it’s just him and his stunningly gorgeous 17-year-old daughter, Milly — an adamant Catholic when she wants to be (when the “invisible duenna” is walking beside her) and a considerable handful when she doesn’t. Wormold earns enough to get by but Milly, a competition-level shopper, now wants a horse. Which also means special clothes, and a saddle and tack, and stabling — and a country club membership, so she’ll have a place to ride. Where is he going to get that kind of money? Fate plays along in the shape of an Englishman called Hawthorne, sent by MI-6 in London to build a network of informants in the Caribbean. Before he quite knows it, Wormold has been recruited and told to develop his own local network and send in reports on the Cuban economy, military operations, relations with the Russians, and internal politics. Of course, he has no idea how to do any of that. But then his old friend, a retired German doctor named Hasselbacher, suggests he simply make up his agents and his reports – and his expense vouchers. It’s a lot safer and London will never know the difference (and so events prove). And Milly can have her horse. That’s the set-up and Greene (as Wormold) has a great time creating agents from all walks of life, gathering data by reading the newspapers and from published government reports, and claiming expenses and bonuses from his paymasters. London is delighted — so delighted, they send Wormold a couple of specialists to help run his station — one of them a very attractive young lady who rather turns his head. It’s not a long book, only a little over two hundred pages, but it’s a lot of fun. Incidentally, this novel was a reworking of a screenplay idea Greene had pitched a few years before, set originally in the Baltic in 1938. The Crown censors told him to forget it because the movie would have made fun of the Secret Service. Can’t have that, can we?

Published in: on 15 May 2011 at 4:24 am  Leave a Comment  
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