Some Caribbean sun, a few daiquiris, a bit of spying and some good laughs make Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene the perfect Covid-January read. With a far-fetched plot – British Havana based vacuum clean salesman, Jim Wormold, is recruited as a spy for MI6 – it delivers some much-needed distraction. Wormold has been brutally dumped by his Cuban wife and is left to raise their 16-year-old daughter Milly by himself. Keeping glamorous Milly content is expensive and when Mr Hawthorne from the Foreign Office arrives from England, he makes Wormold an offer he can’t afford to refuse.
The question is whether or not our protagonist has it in him to be a spy? It turns out not, and rather than doing some actual spying, Wormold makes it all up. Before we know it, reality catches up with Wormold’s own fiction. The spying mission itself is less clear but perhaps that’s part of the point.
Greene, himself a spy for MI6 in the 1940s, relishes in taking the mickey out of the British Intelligence Service. With a mixture of colonial arrogance and utter naivete, Mr Hawthorne and his boss, the elusive ‘The Chief’, control it all from the comfort of their leather chairs in London, clueless of what’s happening on the ground and mainly concerned with saving their own skin.
There are some fabulous characters in this novel: the spoilt, manipulative Milly with ‘hair the colour of pale honey’ who’s simultaneously a flirt and an innocent Catholic; her terrifying suitor Captain Segura, the head of police, whose cigarette-case is rumoured to be made of human skin, some imaginary sub-agents including Teresa, the stripper, and Wormold himself, so obviously not in control of any aspect of his life.
As many novels written in 1958, this doesn’t exactly present a modern view of women or blacks. To enjoy this book, we have to forgive Greene. It’s clear that his intentions are good; he just didn’t know better.
Perfect mindless entertainment.
Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene is published by Vintage Classics, 256 pages.