Friday, 28 February 2014

Book Review: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0099286084/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0099286084&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21The world of espionage serves as background for many thrillers. I’m no big fan of the genre because mainstream writers tend to pack more open violence and perfidious intrigues into them than seems necessary to me, but a really good spy story will also give its readers a well-founded idea of international politics and the social as well as economic context of the plot and its characters. It’s almost inevitable that thrillers of this kind are period works which – unless they are placed in a historical or fictitious setting – become outdated by the vicissitudes of history. On the other hand, some gain a certain testimonial value and achieve the status of classics. One such spy novel, even though a satiric one, is Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. 

Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England/U.K., in October 1904. Already as a boy he showed bipolar disorder and tried to kill himself several times. While in college at Oxford, U.K., he made his literary debut with a poetry collection which wasn’t well received, though. After graduation he earned his living as a tutor and as a journalist until his first novel, The Man Within (1929), was published and sold passably well. Real success, however, came only with Stamboul Train (brought out as Orient Express in the USA) in 1932. Among the most famous works of the prolific writer are his so-called Catholic novels Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951), but he is also known for lighter entertainment (often inspired by his activity as a spy for M.I.6) like A Gun for Sale (1936), The Third Man (1949), The Quiet American (1955), Our Man in Havana (1958), and The Tenth Man (1985) plus several short story collections and his autobiographies A Sort of Life (1971) and Ways of Escape (1980). Graham Greene died in Vevey, Switzerland, in April 1991. 

It’s Cuba in the 1950s before the Fulgencio Batista regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries. Our Man in Havana is Jim Wormold, the local agent of Phastkleaners vacuum cleaners. After his wife left him ten years earlier, he has been bringing up alone their now sixteen-year-old daughter Milly. The girl takes for granted to be able to enjoy all luxuries and pleasures that well-to-do European residents in Havana, first of all her classmates at the American convent school, are used to at the time and she knows how to get her will. While Jim Wormold still ponders about how to meet his daughter’s latest desire, her own horse, without slipping deep into debt, he is approached by an Englishman called Hawthorne. He is quite astonished, when he finds himself all of a sudden recruited as a spy for the British Secret Service M.I.6. However, he can use the money and his friend Dr. Hasselbacher, a German veteran of World War I residing in Cuba for decades, encourages him to play his part in the Cold War game. For want of information to pass on, Wormold begins to make up reports and before soon he adds sketches of vacuum cleaner parts which he passes off as secret military facilities on the island. His intelligence work is such a success in London that a secretary and a radio assistant are sent to Havana for his support. From this point on the fake reports develop dynamics of their own pushing Wormold into the dangerous (and in several cases fatal) net of real espionage and towards his attractive as well as understanding secretary Beatrice.

Our Man in Havana is a satirical spy novel which Graham Greene himself labelled as entertainment rather than as literary fiction when it first came out. In fact, it’s a light and amusing read with the characteristics of the genre including several surprising turns leading to the deaths of innocent people as well as a budding love story. The plot is simple, clear and easy to follow. It is told from the point of view of a third-person narrator who attaches importance to depicting the protagonist’s inner life and motives for his actions as well as the socio-political and economical circumstances in which he lives. The characters are taken from life with all their strengths and weaknesses although a real Captain Segura might have been much more dangerous and pitiless than in the novel. Cuba was the obvious and perfect setting for such a story, a fact which was later confirmed by the Cuban Missile Crisis of the early 1960s. Language and style of the novel are functional and unpretentious as always with this author, but as requires making fun of the spying trade, Graham Greene salted it with an ironical undertone throughout. 

My impression of Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene has been a good one. I’m less enthusiastic about it than I was when I first read this novel some time in the latest 1980s, but the author had a way of telling his stories which is very much in my line. Not without reason I counted Graham Greene among my favourites until growing older I got out of the habit of reading him. In any case, Our Man in Havana has been an entertaining and enjoyable read which I recommend with good conscience.

2 comments:

  1. I've been looking for a way to get into Graham Greene for a long time, so perhaps this is it! For whatever reason I've always found him intimidating as an author.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, April. Always happy to help to discover "new" authors!

      Well, for me as a non-native speaker of English Greene's books were the drugs to make me addicted to reading novels in the original English versions ;-) Some of this authors topics may be tough - or a bit too "Catholic" -, but his language definitely is a treat. Clear, simple and very accessible when you either need to skip words that you don't know or consult the dictionary every few lines... ;-)

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