Our Man in Havana
“There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?”
What I like about Graham Greene’s novels is the flavor of exotic locals, that sense of armchair travel to foreign times and places. Greene really did travel to and live in the places he writes about, and he is more than willing to divulge the bad along with the good, conveying settings that seem real precisely because of their confusing mix of beautiful scenery and repulsive humanity. Since I, too, am a lover of world travel and have spent time living outside my home country, I also appreciate that Greene doesn’t varnish the truth of what ex-pats are like abroad. He paints us in all our drunk, detached, sentimental glory, and explores, albeit in an offhand, sardonic way, our reasons for leaving, for staying away, and for every step in between.
Our Man in Havana follows Wormold, a (horrendously named) English vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana. Wormold’s wife left him long ago and he has had to raise his now-teenage daughter, Milly, by himself. This plot twist allows Greene to show that Wormold is a better guy than many we’ve encountered in the stories of other British humorists. He’s not just trying to get along for his own sake, but for his daughter’s, who he raises Catholic in spite of not being a Catholic himself (his wife was). Concerned with mustering enough wealth to provide for his daughter, who has expensive tastes, Wormold accepts a position as a spy with a British intelligence agency when an agent from the London office somewhat randomly offers him a job in a bar bathroom. Of course, he has no idea of how to be a spy, so he makes up stories and invents fake agents, whose salary and expenses he then collects. It’s fraud, yes, but the reader feels more sympathetic twoards the meek and unassuming Wormold than the “intelligence” agency. This is not surprising considering Greene’s depictions of the men at the top in his “Interlude in London” sections: “Hawthorne, I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.” “Is that desirable, sir?” “Of course it’s desirable. Nobody worries about conventional weapons.”
The ideas and questions Greene raises in this novel are interesting, but the way he raises them is often so heavy-handed that one loses the sense of discovering something for oneself. There is hardly a question of meaning here: Greene lets us know what we are supposed to think. “A family-feud had been a better reason for murder than patriotism or the preference for one economic system over another. If I love or if I hate let me love or hate as an individual. I will not be 59200/5 in anyone’s global war.” What our countries do should not define us as individuals, even though that’s exactly what they hope to achieve, subsuming our individuality in order to bend it to their own purposes. We may be tempted or conditioned to believe that our countrymen and women are closer to us than people from other cultures but, as Wormold finds out, it doesn’t matter where someone comes from, it’s what they do and how they live that counts.
Greene’s books are short, quick reads that transport you to another time and place without ever leaving dear old England very far behind. I enjoy traveling to these places with Greene and I will continue to do so, even though I know I’ll have to look further to move beyond the important but somewhat basic idea that England just doesn’t have all the answers.