"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 3, 2012

"Our Man in Havana" by Graham Greene

Our Man in Havana (1958) is a perfect entertainment, a fine dark comedy with a serious undertone. The novel is a spoof on the murky world of spies and political paranoia, showing how silly the world of secret information is. For after all, when something is top secret, who can check whether it is true?

The British Secret Service in the person of the suave Mr Hawthorne are setting up a new network in the Caribbean and recruit meek expatriate Mr Wormold who lives in Havana, Cuba, and is the owner of a vacuum cleaner shop. The year is 1958, the tail end of the repressive Batista regime. Wormold has a 17-year old adolescent daughter with expensive tastes and needs the extra income, for his daughter is all he has in the world and he cannot deny her anything. But as he has no idea at all how to go about the spy business, he follows the advice of his German friend Dr Hasselbacher and manufactures the reports from his rich fantasy. He also sets up a fictional network of sub-agents, pocketing the money himself.

When he sends in some fanciful drawings of what seem to be rockets - in reality he has drawn the inside of a vacuum cleaner - his work is so much appreciated in a London in the throes of Cold War paranoia, that they reinforce his operations with a secretary (Beatrice Severn) and a radio man  (interestingly, Greene presaged the Cuban missile crisis, although Mr Wormold was making it all up!).

Now Wormold has to cheat with his bogus spy activities on two persons eager to get a piece of the action who are all the time sitting on his lip. Another problem is that daughter Milly is getting too close for comfort to Captain Segura, a representative of the dictatorial regime who boasts of his torturing capabilities and carries a cigarette case made out of human skin.

On top of that, Wormold has made one fatal mistake: instead of wholly relying on fantasy, he has used the names of real people (members of the club of expatriates) for his agent network. The shit hits the fan when these people start being killed - for real. Someone has been decoding Wormold's reports, but it remains unclear whether that is the Cuban government or a group of agents from another nation. Beatrice forces Wormold to visit the other "members" of his sub-agent network and warn them - but how do you warn somebody whose name you have borrowed but whose spy activities only exist in your head?

Gradually things slide hopelessly out of control and panic rises along with the body count, especially when Wormold hears that he himself will be poisoned at the Trade Association Luncheon where he has been invited as a speaker. As a result he is very careful with the food - handing the plate meant for him to a neighbor who also hands it on so that eventually it poisons a dog in the kitchen - but the one who gets killed is his friend Dr Hasselbacher, from revenge as he had warned Wormold.

Despite the seriousness of an event like this, the story remains a farce until the end when Wormold plays a game of checkers with Captain Segura to obtain a list of all secret agents in Havana - he has been taking the money from MI6 for the lies he manufactured but now wants to offer something "real" in return. They play with the mini-bottles of whiskey and bourbon Wormold collects and when a piece is taken, the winner has to drink it. Segura is the better player and therefore he gets so drunk that Wormold not only can steal the list, but also his pistol - to take revenge with on the murderer of his friend Dr Hasselbacher.

Repatriated to London with daughter and secretary, the fictionality of Wormold's reports is no longer a secret within MI6. But if they would punish him for it, their own jobs would be at stake - for who was so stupid to hire this guy and believe everything he reported? So Wormold gets a nice retirement position as lecturer and marries Beatrice. The final joke is on the public that assumes the government men in their grey suits render selfless service for the common weal - while they are only protecting their jobs.

The novel is perfect in its tight construction and remains seriously funny till the end. Graham himself briefly worked for MI6 in the war years and obviously writes from experience where the shifting sands of the truth in secret service work are concerned.

Our Man in Havana was filmed, in 1959, by Carol Reed, who had already given us another Graham Greene classic, The Third Man. There is a strong cast with Alec Guinness as Wormold and several scenes were filmed in Havana for that extra bit of realism. Perhaps because Graham Greene worked together with Reed on the script, the film is very faithful to the novel.