Thursday, 13 December 2012

Our man in Havana, by G. Greene

I just love Graham Greene - his books may be considered as "heavy", but the ideas, the plots and the characters he puts on paper are, in my opinion, the equivalent of a genius. 
So how does it feel when such a genius writes a comedy?  a dark comedy, true, still something that is so different from anything he's even written before?  Time to read Our Man in Havana, a book that appears to be so complicated, yet retains so much of its humanity that I'm at a loss for words (or not...)

We follow the colourless life of Mr. Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman, who I would describe as a slight push-over:  his daughter Milly gets whatever she desires, his friend Dr. Hasselback, a war veteran, gets to lure him into drinking - basically Wormold likes to please everyone, without ever thinking about himself. Luckily for him, it's also the golden time of counter-espionage.  He is approached to join MI6, the British Intelligence Agency, in a slightly exaggerated manner, still believable (Greene was himself a spy for some time).

Spying is, I suppose, the "advisor" job of today.  Everyone is welcome to join, in order to provide a service and make some extra cash to supplement a "regular" job.  That's why Wormold actually joins in this masquerade:  he can no longer make ends meet, and rather than deny his daughter anything, he takes his destiny in his own hands, becomes a spy and ... makes up stories.  The book is based on Greene's own experience with double agents who sent fake information, so it's truly amazing to read page after page the imagination of Wormold taking all types of shapes and the reports that he manages to sent.  Remember, it's an honour to have contributed to the pursuit of communists and to prevention of revolutionary movements (with some slight changes, I believe these are the workings of international politics nowadays as well).

After a whirlwind of misunderstandings and a series of people duped, only the spy who has actually recruited Wormold realises the real situation at hand, but even he can no longer react:  his own job is at stake, so he has to turn a blind eye and everything continues to the benefit of Wormold. A story with great twists, my only minor comment would be on the ending, when all is finally revealed, which is rather weak:  it all happens too fast - Wormold is despite all offered a teaching post at MI6, and is even proposed for an OBE.  While I can understand that such extreme failures lead to cover-ups of the same magnitude, I must admit that it felt too much, even for Greene.

From the various characters, I found Wormold and Hasselback the most comprehensively described - their needs, their wants, their regrets and their wishes.  I really can understand Hasselback and his disillusion with the world:  all he wants is an easy life and that's what he strives for.  Wormold, on the other hand, is a true altruist.  He's just too good, thinking about the well-being of everyone else but himself - very likeable person. 
Milly, Wormold's daughter, was a difficult character and I never grew warm to her:  on the one hand she's a devout Catholic, but on the other she has extravagant wishes which she will get from her father:  if not, she will ask from Captain Segoura, a caricature of an abusive south-American policy officer with too much power in his hands.  In both cases, I felt that Greene was poking fun at the status quo (and I can see why this book was not that popular in Cuba).

The tone of the story is rather quick and not overly emotional - it allowed for a fast reading that I throroughly enjoyed as I wanted to get to the next page to see how the story would evolve.  Mr. Wormold is a man taken out of everyday life - a simple man who can't hurt a fly, who is desperate to make ends meet, is made to take up a different persona to  satisfy the "demands" for counter-intelligence.  The fact that he's still a good man rewards him in the end, albeit he will never totally figure out what happened...  A nice little feel-good story with a darker side...

Read for the 2012 Graham Greene challenge




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