Our Man in Havana

5 minute read

After finishing Adam Sisman’s gripping biography of John Le Carre, as a seasoned reader of espionage fiction I realized I had a big gap — I’d not read Graham Greene. I decided to start with “Our Man in Havana”, a light-hearted (or mostly so) caper set in Cuba.

Greene’s Cuba is by turns comical and threatening. His tone swings from lyrical to prosaic with in a sentence, and paints a loving portrait of the city:

The long city lay spread along the open Atlantic; waves broke over the Avenida de Maceo and misted the windscreens of cars. The pink, grey, yellow pillars of what had once been the aristocratic quarter were eroded like rocks; an ancient coat of arms, smudged and featureless, was set over the doorway of a shabby hotel, and the shutters of a nightclub were varnished in bright crude colours to protect them from the wet and salt of the sea. In the west the steel skyscrapers of the new town rose higher than lighthouses into the clear February sky. It was a city to visit, not a city to live in, but it was the city where Wormold had first fallen in love and he was held to it as though to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly (his daughter) resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.

Mr. Wormold is a British vacuum cleaner living in Cuba who is approached by Hawthorne, a representative of British secret service, promising easy money in return for Wormold acquiring secrets. Wormold needs more money to help finance the spending habits of his 16-year old daughter Milly.

There’s only one problem: Wormold doesn’t know any secrets. Drinking with his friend Doctor Hasselbacher (drinking is everywhere in this book), they hit on it:

All you need is a little imagination, Mr Wormold.
They want me to recruit agents. How does one recruit an agent, Hasselbacher?
You could invent them too, Mr Wormold.
You sound as though you had experience.
Medicine is my experience, Mr Wormold. Have you never read the advertisement for secret remedies? A hair tonic confided by the dying Chief of a Red Indian tribe. With a secret remedy you don’t have to print the formula. And there is something about a secret which makes people believe . . . perhaps a relic of magic….
Have you heard of a book code?
Don’t tell me too much, Mr Wormold, all the same. Secrecy is not my business… Please don’t invent me as your agent.’ … But remember, as long as you lie you do no harm….
(but I ) take their money…
They have no money except what they take from men like you and me.

Before you know it, Wormold’s entirely fictitious “secrets” are infecting the real world, and real people are impacted because of his fake “intelligence”. Some of his “fictitious” agents seem to become real….

Our Man in Havana presents a jaundiced view of the intelligence services — where Le Carre paints moral equivalence, Greene paints incompetence and cynicism. At the same time it is a caper and a romp and often hilarious — but there’s a dark edge: Segura, the Cuban policeman given to torturing those he needs to (and who wants to marry Milly). He lectures Wormold on the theory of torture over a game of checkers:

Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.’ There’s torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hassel-bacher’s laboratory they were torturing . . One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasseibacher does not belong to the torturable class.

Who does?

The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.

You always win, don’t you? That’s an interesting theory of yours.

One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don’t recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons, or the prisons of Lisbon or Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.

We’re not shocked by that any longer.

It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.

They had another free daiquiri each, frozen so stiffly that it had to be drunk in tiny drops to avoid a sinus-pain.

‘And how is Milly?’ Captain Segura asked. 
I’m very fond of the child. She has been properly brought up. 
I’m glad you think so.
That is another reason why I would not wish ou to get into, any trouble, Mr Wormold, which might mean the loss of your residence permit….

But the torturer gets his comeuppance in a scene in a bar when a beautiful woman drenches him with a soda sprayer…

Our Man in Havana is one of the old espionage classics. It laughs at the genre, it laughs at it’s characters, and you will laugh along…but some of the laughs are pretty dark.