Monday, November 16, 2009

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

When he was alone Wormold unscrewed the cleaner into its various parts. Then he sat down at his desk and began to make a series of careful drawings. As he sat back and contemplated his sketches of the sprayer detached from the hose-handle of the cleaner, the needle-jet, the nozzle and the telescopic tube, he wondered: Am I perhaps going too far? He realised that he had forgotten to indicate the scale. He ruled a line and numbered it off: one inch representing three feet. Then for better measure he drew a little man two inches high below the nozzle. He dressed him neatly in a dark suit, and gave him a bowler hat and an umbrella.

Graham Greene notoriously split his oeuvre into "novels"--literary and philosophical works like The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter--and pulpier "entertainments." Our Man in Havana is decidedly an entertainment twice removed: a convoluted, jokey spy thriller that isn't really a spy thriller at all.

The protagonist is an English vacuum salesman living in Cuba named Wormold, who is recruited (perhaps only because of his Englishness) by British officials to provide intelligence on the political climate in Cuba, at this time under the dominion of Fulgencio Batista. The process of spying has its natural barriers, and Wormold rarely meets with his directors, instead communicating by book code and substituting numbers for names. Wormold quickly realizes that it is far easier to submit invented intelligence than real intelligence, and even goes so far as to recruit fake "sub-agents" so that he might pocket their salary. Scandalous, it might seem, but Greene keeps the tone light and Wormold naturally meek, casting the blame on the government buffoons.

What Wormold gives them is a diagram of a dissembled vacuum cleaner, claiming that his intelligence has sighted a massive mechanical operation deep in the Cuban jungle. British intelligence, predictably, buys this hook, line, and sinker. But there are other agents in Havana, and eventually the real people "recruited" by Wormold to be his sub-agents find themselves in grave danger, and Wormold himself is the target of assassination attempts.

Our Man in Havana is, despite the persistent threat of death, deceptively sunny and makes for an absurd, almost Coenesque farce. Compared to many of Greene's other novels which have so much more philosophical and social heft, it is also almost completely forgettable. The satire isn't toothless, but neither is it toothsome. As I understand it, Castro disliked the novel because it didn't go far enough in describing the horror of Batista's Cuba, and Greene responded that the novel was really about the British, and yet that didn't stop The Heart of the Matter from vividly expressing the reality of life in sub-Saharan Africa. And neither is there much religious content: Though Wormold is an atheist and his daughter Milly is a devout Catholic, this tension comes to almost nil and is let drop like the irrelevancy that it is. Greene may have called these books "entertainments," but for this reader, they are not nearly as entertaining as those "novels," in which the suspense came from the deeply crafted pathos of their protagonists.