I love a good spy novel (or film, when I get the opportunity to drool over Sean Connery’s Bond), but Our Man in Havana has now shot to the top of my favourite books about espionage. An anti-spy spy novel, Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Havana, is approached by the British Secret Service to keep an eye on things in Cuba. Wormold does it purely for the money; as a single father with a devout Catholic daughter intent on squeezing every last penny, he sure does need it. What follows is a satirical farce in which Wormold decides to invent his agents and all his reports – but then everything that he writes down seems to become reality…
Brilliantly written, I didn’t laugh out loud during the course of this novel, but there were several points when I ‘nose-huffed’ – my version of laughing as an appreciation of a person’s work. Greene wrote in several periods of respite entitled ‘Interlude in London’, when those at HQ in London interpret 59200/5’s reports, which I really enjoyed as they temporarily halted my cringing at Wormold’s situation. The writing itself is engaging, and the plot-twists aren’t really twists at all; I was expecting everything at once, which is exactly what I got. A mysterious Captain Segura lovingly nicknamed The Red Vulture, who also believes in ‘the torturable class’? Systematic killings involving gunshots, poison, whisky and a dacshund? Sounds like a James Bond plot.
But there’s none of the flourish and poise that one gets from 007. Wormold is in at the deep end, and he knows it. As his tales spiral out of control – and Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare begins to be a hindrance – Wormold comes up with even more excuses, and I could really feel the paranoia and desperation building. Greene’s handling of the tense atmosphere was superb, and the contrast between that and the colourful ‘calm’ of Havana was a clever move.
You kill a man – that is so easy,’ Dr Hasselbacher said, ‘it needs no skill. You can be certain of what you’ve done, you can judge death, but to save a man – that takes more than six years of training, and in the end you can never be quite sure that it was you who saved him. Germs are killed by other germs. People just survive.
From Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Being a devotee of the satirical genre, I was pretty sure that I would enjoy Our Man in Havana, and it was so much better than I expected. The pace picks up towards the end of the novel, and for the majority of it I was internally screaming ‘Why, man! Why? Surely it’s easier to be an actual spy than talk your way out of this fiasco!’. A very good satire with just the right amount of cynicism, and a genuinely interesting plot. Four out of five stars.
Have you read this or any other Graham Greene novels that you’d like to recommend? Leave a comment!