Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Our Man In Havana - Graham Greene

This is one of what the author describes as his entertainments. As such it works admirably. It is a gently comic novel of deception in pre-Castro Cuba, with a mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman fooling almost everyone into believing that he runs a group of agents for SIS in London.

Well written, with a lightness of touch to be found with all good writers, the absurd situation unfolds quite naturally. Wormold, the central character, wanders through the mayhem with a charmed innocence (and it is role so admirably suited to Alec Guinness in the film adaptation). Some have criticised the book for not examining the horrors of Batista’s rule, for making light of a terrible situation. But the book is not about Cuba. That was merely an exotic location that Greene knew in which to set a tale about the incompetence of the British Secret Intelligence Service, for which Greene worked for a while.

Yet there is an undertone of seriousness about the book. Elements of the darkness of Batista’s regime do surface – in much the same way they would have bothered the expat community at the time. A discussion on whether a person is of the right class to be worth torturing is quite chilling. The violent deaths that occur in the book are quite casually treated in a way that sits uncomfortably with the notion of a comedy or an entertainment. And the way in which Greene portrays the SIS may be for the most part an affectionate parody, but it does have a harder edge of criticism for a Service that did (and still does) teeter on the verge of rank amateurism.

As with any good writer, Greene does not let these issues (or his wonderful descriptions of the way in which field agents live and work) get in the way of a good story. Well worth a read (or re-read).