Our Man in Havana

by Graham Greene

Our Man in Havana CoverOur Man in Havana has the unique distinction of its place in history more-or-less matching up with its subject matter. The story is about Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman from Cuba, being recruited by British intelligence to gather information. Not knowing the first thing about espionage, but still wanting to draw a paycheck, Wormold decides to start inventing details and other agents working under him, which seems fine until his made-up facts start becoming true. The interesting thing with a story about the awkward moment when ludicrous predictions come to pass is the setting: Cuba, immediately before the fall of Batista and the rise of Castro, the very place where Cold War hostilities were soon to ramp-up and outlandish espionage was to become seemingly more commonplace. (It’s hard to decide whether this is attributed to Greene’s astute insights into current events or just dumb luck.)

I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how funny this book really is. Our Man in Havana has a brand of bureaucratic nonsense that makes me laugh out loud, with a secret service presented as being so out of touch with reality that their attempts at security frequently bring more attention to themselves and refusing to use intelligence to any effective use. (At one point, Wormold is given a tip as to a time and place that there will be an attempt on his life, but instructed that he is unable to avoid said time and place, as it would compromise the integrity of other agents.) When you start to believe that the story is just a measure of fun, however, Greene injects enough suspense to make the story much more biting, and enough insight into the personalities he crafted to make all the humour and suspense meaningful. The end result was a book that I could hardly force myself to put down, and, if that isn’t an unambiguously positive recommendation, I don’t know what is.