Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

A fine comic novel which, like Loser Takes All, keeps a good-humoured smile on your face as it leads you through a succession of humorous or farcical episodes. Because of the dated way people speak it’s difficult not to see it as a black-and-white Ealing comedy and the book was in fact made into a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guinness as the hapless hero.

Plot summary

Jim Wormold (worm + old, geddit?) is rather a failure in life. He lives in Havana where he works as a vacuum cleaner salesman. His wife has left, leaving him in charge of their flighty and spoilt, St Trinians-y teenage daughter. She is hanging round with unsuitable company who encourage her to borrow a lot of money to buy a horse along with all the extras and to join the expensive, high society Country Club.

Out of the blue, a shifty Brit named Hawthorne comes sidling round the vacuum cleaner shop, takes Wormold for a few drinks, manhandles him into the loos (‘for security, old man’) and bamboozles him into becoming an agent for British Intelligence. Wormold is in the middle of spluttering his opposition when Hawthorne mentions the £150 per month pay, plus expenses, plus extra money if he runs sub-agents. Wormold thinks of his daughter’s Country Club fees – and accepts. Thus, our man in Havana is recruited.

Back in Blighty, Hawthorne visits the Chief in his underground bunker in Maida Vale and very amusingly manoeuvres him into embroidering Wormold’s character, helping build a fantasy of a well-connected old planter type with contacts in high society. ‘Useful chap, eh?’

After a month or so Wormold receives a (coded) message, via the embassy, asking where’s the information they’re paying him for. That night he has a brainwave. At a stroke he invents five sub-agents – a pilot, an engineer, a professor, a Mata Hari glamour girl etc – and cooks up completely fake intelligence about big clearings being made in the jungle, concrete platforms being built, scary new weapons being constructed.

When London ask for more details Wormold, now working with a fluency and confidence that surprises even himself, sits down and draws technical diagrams of enormous and ominous-looking weapons based on… the vacuum cleaner parts lying around in his shop! In London HQ the Chief calls Hawthorne over and there is a very funny scene where, the more the Chief evinces horror at this ghastly new secret weapon, the more Hawthorne realises what they’re actually sketches of, realises Wormold is pulling a fast one, and hears the crashing noise of his own career hitting the buffers.

The Chief (or C) says Wormold (or agent 59200/1) is now generating such important information he’s going to need a properly-trained secretary and a radio operator, which are duly despatched. They arrive in Havana to Wormold’s horror – and it’s then that the fun really begins.

For it turns out that there actually exists a pilot with the name Wormold thought he’d invented for him – and he is assassinated by ‘the Other Side’! Soon after an attempt is made on the life of the (actually existing) engineer he’d frivolously named in his reports to London. The police are called in. Wormold is questioned. The sinister head of police, Captain Segura, tells him someone has cracked his code and is taking his wild fictions for fact, taking them so seriously they are prepared to threaten and kill to get their hands on the photos of the new secret weapon!

How can Wormold get out of this fix? How long can he conceal his massive deception from Beatrice, the female assistant sent out from London? What is the role of Wormold’s secretive friend, the German Dr Hasselbacher? Will Wormold get his fingers burned playing a dangerous game of deception with the head of Havana’s intelligence, Captain Segura, who is rumoured to be an expert torturer? And what grim fate awaits Wormold at the European Traders’ Association annual jamboree?

The plot darkens

Arguably the plot darkens a bit from here onwards. The eccentric German emigre doctor, Dr Hasselbacher, who, over drinks at the bar, first suggested the idea of inventing agents and reports, has himself been approached by ‘the other side’. It is he who reports that the pilot Wormold thought he’d invented has in fact been assassinated. And then he himself is murdered. The novel moves towards a climax of sorts when Wormold confronts the fellow Englishman who tried to poison him at the annual lunch.

These actual deaths ought to spoil the book, but Greene maintains a light-hearted tone, combined with crisp writing which continues to produce comic effects, banter, repartee, comic asides, and leads up to the high comic ending, so that you close the book with a broad smile on your face.

Sententious

The sheer volume of Greene’s wise sayings in his early novels prompted me to devote a blog post to Greene the preacher. The dictionary defines ‘sententious’ as ‘abounding in pithy aphorisms or maxims’ or ‘given to excessive moralizing; self-righteous’. This essentially light, witty novel would be lighter if Greene didn’t feel compelled to sprinkle it with pithy apothegms:

A picture-postcard is a symptom of loneliness. (p.64)

Somebody always leaves a banana-skin on the scene of a tragedy. (p.70)

There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim. (p.72)

The irritating thing about them, is they’re nearly all not true. When my mother died there were no banana skins around. When I’ve watched friends or family write piles of postcards on holiday, it wasn’t anything to do with loneliness, generally the opposite. I can think of many jokes with no victim. What’s yellow, lumpy and extremely dangerous? Shark-infested custard. Can’t see the victim there. Greene’s pithy maxims are invariably slick and false.

But these, and the occasional potholes in the road caused by references to his daughter’s Catholic convent education, and even the sudden deaths on the last part, can be easily overlooked in the sheer enjoyment of this confident and extravagantly funny novel.

Related links

The movie

Apparently, Greene based the story on a well-known agent he came across while running British Intelligence’s Portuguese network of agents during the War. The agent, codenamed ‘Garbo’, earned a fortune sending the Germans entirely spurious information about British troop movements and so on without ever leaving the comfort of his apartment. Greene wrote a movie treatment in 1946, which wasn’t commissioned and which he dusted off after making trips to Cuba in the late 1950s and realising the farcical plot could be relocated there.

Our Man In Havana was immediately optioned and gave Greene the opportunity to collaborate once again with director Carol Reed (of The Third Man fame). The resulting movie stars Alec Guinness, Noel Coward, Burl Ives and Ralph Richardson and was released in 1960. It is beautifully shot in and around Havana, uses lots of Cuban music and extras, and has brilliant comic actors. Why, then, does it fall flat? There isn’t a real laugh in its nearly 2 hours duration whereas I laughed out loud at numerous places in the novel.

It might be something to do with the way a book cocoons you in its own little world, carefully selecting the details it provides you and where you’ll end up believing anything (eg Harry Potter), including this farcical intrigue involving half a dozen characters. Whereas this film all-too-beautifully shows you the ‘real’ world of Havana with its millions of people going about their lives in the hard tropical sunlight, and this somehow destroys the delicate bloom of the novel’s comedy. The reality of the bustling streets and busy highways makes the fragile farcical fiction harder to sustain.

Plus, it could be that Reed, the master of sinister effects and noir camera angles in The Third Man, was just not so good at filming comedy. Comedy is always about timing – there are plenty of funny moments in the screenplay: the moment when Hawthorne realises that the diagrams his boss is holding in his hands and raving about are in fact just enlarged drawings of vacuum cleaner parts, that Wormold is a fraud, that his boss will sooner or later realise this and then Hawthorne’s goose will be cooked – is a great moment in the book and it occurs here in the film but, as with almost all the other would-be comic moments – just doesn’t quite click.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
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