This is my review of Our Man in Havana (Vintage Classics) by Graham Greene.
To read this is to be reminded of the spate of "true classics" written in the mid-C20 when novelists still retained the fluency and eloquence stemming from a classical education which they were free for the first time to apply to the expression of real emotions, and the questioning of conventional values, morality and religion. There was so much to write about this that they felt no need for self-conscious experiments with structure or style.
Written with great prescience only a few months before the Cuban Revolution swept Castro to power in 1959, this black comedy introduces us to the anti-hero Wormold who at first seems pathetic, unable to demonstrate effectively the vacuum cleaners he is attempting to earn a living from selling, allowing himself to be twisted round the finger of his lovely but manipulative daughter Millie. Then we begin to see his unexpected resourcefulness when, bullied into acting as a secret agent for Britain, "our man in Havana", he begins to dream up a false trail of imaginary agents, all requiring payment of course, and even submits drawings of threatening installations, bearing an uncanny resemblance to hoover parts. He astonishes himself with the fertility of his imagination, "how quickly he could reply to any questions about his characters".
Initially, all this subterfuge is simply to indulge Millie's whim for a horse, with the string of extra expenses this entails, yet he gains a simple joy from supplying her wants: he admires in her the spirit which he lacks, and treasures the few remaining years in which he will be able to share her life.
Of course, his colourful reports to London will have unforeseen, perhaps grim or violent ramifications. Yet, ultimately Wormold may be protected by the fear of those in authority of losing face.
Beneath the vivid evocation of a crumbling but picturesque Havana, there are continual hints of a darker and growing violence, such as occasional harassment by the police who back off at the reference to a certain Captain Segura, reputed to carry with him a cigarette case made from the skin of one of his torture victims.
In all the humour and entertaining plot twists there are the usual "grahamgreeneish" insights into morality, faith, the meaning of life, the nature of love and honour. He likens Wormold's growing sense of guilt to a small mouse, to which he may soon become so accustomed that he will let it feed out of his hand. In the end "Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?" Greene clearly thought so, although perhaps confined this belief to his novels rather than practise it in his own life.
P.S. Does anyone know the full lyrics and tune for the song quoted, which begins "Sane men surround /You, old family friendss/They say the earth is round-/My madness offends./An orange has pips, they say,/An apple has rind./I say that night is day/And I've no axe to grind."?