Graham Greene: Our Man in Havana
No contemporary novel quite captures the tawdry intrigue and disreputable aura of Batista’s Havana than does Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, published in 1958 and set amid the torrid events of Havana in 1957.
The comic tale tells of Wormold, an English vacuum-cleaner salesman based in Havana and short of money. His daughter has reached an expensive age, so he accepts an offer of £300 a month and becomes Agent 59200/5, MI6’s man in Havana]. To keep his job, he files bogus reports and dreams up military apparatuses from vacuum-cleaner parts. Unfortunately, Wormold becomes trapped by his own deceit and the workings of a hopelessly corrupt city and society.
Graham Greene (1904–1991) was already a respected author when he was recruited to work for the Foreign Office, serving the years 1941–1943 in Sierra Leone, Africa. In the last years of the war, he worked for the British Secret Service dealing with counterespionage on the Iberian Peninsula, where he learned how the Nazi Abwehr (the German Secret Service) sent home false reports—perfect material for his novel.
He traveled widely and based many of his works, including Our Man in Havana, on his experiences. He visited Havana several times in the 1950s and was disturbed by the mutilations and torture practiced by Batista’s police officers and by social ills such as racial discrimination: “Every smart bar and restaurant was called a club so that a Negro could be legally excluded.” But he confessed to enjoying the “louche atmosphere” of Havana and seems to have savored the fleshpots completely. “I came there…for the brothel life, the roulette in every hotel,” he later wrote.
Castro condoned Our Man in Havana but complained that it didn’t do justice to the ruthlessness of the Batista regime. Greene agreed: “Alas, the book did me little good with the new rulers in Havana. In poking fun at the British Secret Service, I had minimized the terror of Batista’s rule. I had not wanted too black a background for a light-hearted comedy, but those who had suffered during the years of dictatorship could hardly be expected to appreciate that my real subject was the absurdity of the British agent and not the justice of a revolution.” Nonetheless, Castro permitted the screen version, starring Alec Guinness as Wormold, to be filmed in Havana in 1959.
Greene returned to Cuba in the years 1963–1966. Although initially impressed by Castro’s war on illiteracy (he called it “a great crusade”), he later soured after witnessing the persecution of homosexuals, intellectuals, and Catholics. Perhaps for this reason, the author isn’t commemorated in Cuba in any way.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition