Oliver reads Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene

Words by Oliver Chapman

Published on August 12, 2012

A novel which fuses two popular themes, one of which, an ostensibly light-hearted satire – the other being a gritty espionage thriller set during the Cold War, is sure to create a great synergy. Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana is a delightfully intriguing novel that takes pleasure in poking some fun at the clandestine services.

The plot’s central character is Wormold, a jaded divorcee who owns a vacuum store in Havana.  He is constantly harangued and manipulated by his precocious daughter Milly and he seeks respite through his long-time friend Dr. Hasselbacher who is usually ensconced in an alcoholic drink of some sort.

Eventually a British spy named Hawthorne contacts Wormold where he quickly becomes embroiled in a world that’s evidently out of the guy’s depth.

The novel flits back and forth between the events in Havana to interludes at British Intelligence Headquarters in London, where we come across the book’s most polished character ‘The Chief’. We see The Chief, who while sitting behind a desk for the majority of the novel orchestrates numerous clandestine operations across the globe with an eloquently dry charm, which more than anything feels like a comedic representation of Cold War political (over) scheming.

In fact comparisons between The Chief and Ian Fleming’s ‘M’ character would not be unfounded. This is where Greene has excelled the most; in the development of characters coupled with a wide scope of their progression. For instance, at the start of the book we see Wormold as a relatively pathetic and naïve character, one that languishes in self-pity and seems to be easily coerced into obliging his daughter.

However towards the latter stages of the book, we see him transformed into a more confident and less malleable man – prospering somewhat from his ham-handed shenanigans as a pseudo-spy. Similarly we feel a sense of endearment towards him and his daughter towards the end of the book, where we see a glimpse of emotional reconciliation between the two.

The salient theme that runs throughout the book is one of cheeky political satire, which it executes with a wink and a nudge. Indeed certain scenes and discourses from the book could be found in a Peter Sellers script of the same time period.

But its role as a black comedy comes off as mediocre though when it depicts Cuba during the time of the brutal Batista regime. This manifests itself in the form of the ultra sleazy Captain Segura, who hedges between the role of an antagonist and a ‘pitch-black’ comedic vehicle, which admittedly comes off as a bit incongruous.

Although lacking with slightly clunky and languid prose at the beginning Our Man in Havana is a wonderfully dry political satire that thoroughly engages the reader.