Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

A review of the satirical espionage thriller novel Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene.

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A surprisingly light-hearted romp in 1950s pre-communist Cuba, Our Man in Havana is Graham Greene’s humorous spy novel. It’s about a vacuum cleaner salesman called James Wormold who is secretly recruited by MI6. Living in the city of Havana, under the shadow of military dictator Fulgencio Batista’s regime, Wormold is struggling financially, largely due to being abandoned by his wife and being left to care for his spendthrift teenage daughter Milly.

It’s a stroke of luck, then, that the Secret Intelligence Service operative Hawthorne approaches him in a toilet, and offers Wormold a side job to be a spy. He accepts, but it soon transpires, however, that Wormold cannot find any useful information worth sending to London. Fearful of not getting paid by MI6, he resorts to inventing ludicrously outlandish reports based on newspaper articles, as well as fictionalising an imaginary network of agents to dupe his paymasters.

Wormold’s imagination runs wild, to such a degree that he even uses the shape of a vacuum cleaner part to describe a secret military installation hidden in the mountains. Clearly having fooled his bosses back at MI6, he is surprised when they send him a secretary, Beatrice Severn, and Wormold soon finds that the collision of fiction and reality can indeed have disastrous consequences.

Ostensibly satirising British bureaucracy, Our Man in Havana was intended to mock the veracity of government intelligence gathering in the Cold War spy trade. Having said that, there are aspects of this story—such as Wormold’s invention of a secret military installation—which proved strangely prescient in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As with much of his oeuvre, Greene’s political insight clearly knew no bounds.

Though many of Graham Greene’s novels focused on espionage, his tone was usually more serious-minded and rarely did he dabble in more humorous fare as he does in Our Man in Havana, though this story makes you wish he did it more often. Emanating with classic dry British humour, laconic wit, and farcical overtones, this novel still remains a surprisingly chucklesome read. Be warned, however: it is also very much a product of its time and may offend some readers from its opening page, on account of the usage of an unfortunate racial slur.

If you can get past such archaic attitudes then you’ll find Our Man in Havana blossoms into an impeccably light satire for the ages. It is as vividly and evocatively written as any of Greene’s other espionage thrillers. It doesn’t take long to see why this tale of an accidental spy with an overactive imagination was adapted into a film starring Alec Guinness and Noel Coward in 1959. If you’re familiar with Graham Greene’s other work, such as Brighton Rock and the Quiet American, but had no idea he dabbled in humorous fiction, it’s high time you were introduced to Our Man in Havana.

Humorous fiction writer, poet and novelist. Fond of satire. Interested in comic novels, black comedy and tales of satirical derring-do.

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