Our Man in Havana (Greene)

Our Man in Havana
Graham Greene, 1959
~200-250 pp. (varies by publisher)

Our Man in Havana is an espionage thriller, a penetrating character study, and a political satire that still resonates today. Conceived as one of Graham Greene’s “entertainments,” it tells of MI6’s man in Havana, Wormold, a former vacuum-cleaner salesman turned reluctant secret agent out of economic necessity. (From Penguin Group USA edition.)

Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in a city of power outages. His adolescent daughter spends his money with a skill that amazes him, so when a mysterious Englishman offers him an extra income he's tempted. In return all he has to do is file a few reports. But when his fake reports start coming true things suddenly get more complicated and Havana becomes a threatening place. (From Random House UK edition.)

The 1959 film version stars Alec Guiness, Burl Ives, and Maureen O'Hara...and Noel Coward as Hawthorne. Also, Jeremy Northam does a fine turn in the novel's audio version.

* The novel was copyrighted in 1958 and published in 1959, thus the disparity in dates.

Author Bio Birth—October 2, 1904
Where—Berkhamstd, England, UK
Death—April 3, 1991
Where—Vevey, Switzerland
Education—Oxford University
Awards—Hawthornden Prize; Companion
   of Honour; Chevalier of the Legion of
   Honour; Order of Merit.

Known for his espionage thrillers set in exotic locales, Graham Greene is the writer who launched a thousand travel journalists. But although Greene produced some unabashedly commercial works—he called them "entertainments," to distinguish them from his novels—even his escapist fiction is rooted in the gritty realities he encountered around the globe. "Greeneland" is a place of seedy bars and strained loyalties, of moral dissolution and physical decay.

Greene spent his university years at Oxford "drunk and debt-ridden," and claimed to have played Russian roulette as an antidote to boredom. At age 21 he converted to Roman Catholicism, later saying, "I had to find a religion...to measure my evil against." His first published novel, The Man Within, did well enough to earn him an advance from his publishers, but though Greene quit his job as a London Times subeditor to write full-time, his next two novels were unsuccessful. Finally, pressed for money, he set out to write a work of popular fiction. Stamboul Train (also published as The Orient Express) was the first of many commercial successes.

Throughout the 1930s, Greene wrote novels, reviewed books and movies for the Spectator, and traveled through eastern Europe, Liberia, and Mexico. One of his best-known works, Brighton Rock, was published during this time; The Power and the Glory, generally considered Greene's masterpiece, appeared in 1940. Along with The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair, they cemented Greene's reputation as a serious novelist—though George Orwell complained about Greene's idea "that there is something rather distingué in being damned; Hell is a sort of high-class nightclub, entry to which is reserved for Catholics only."

During World War II, Greene was stationed in Sierra Leone, where he worked in an intelligence capacity for the British Foreign Office under Kim Philby, who later defected to the Soviet Union. After the war, Greene continued to write stories, plays, and novels, including The Quiet American, Travels with My Aunt, The Honorary Consul, and The Captain and the Enemy. For a time, he worked as a screenwriter for MGM, producing both original screenplays and scripts adapted from his fiction.

He also continued to travel, reporting from Vietnam, Haiti, and Panama, among other places, and he became a vocal critic of U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Some biographers have suggested that his friendships with Communist leaders were a ploy, and that he was secretly gathering intelligence for the British government. The more common view is that Greene's leftist leanings were part of his lifelong sympathy with the world's underdogs—what John Updike called his "will to compassion, an ideal communism even more Christian than Communist. Its unit is the individual, not any class."

But if Greene's politics were sometimes difficult to decipher, his stature as a novelist has seldom been in doubt, in spite of the light fiction he produced. Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, and R. K. Narayan paid tribute to his work, and William Golding prophesied: "He will be read and remembered as the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man's consciousness and anxiety."

• Greene's philandering ways were legendary; he frequently visited prostitutes and had several mistresses, including Catherine Walston, who converted to Catholicism after reading The Power and the Glory and wrote to Greene asking him to be her godfather. After a brief period of correspondence, the two met, and their relationship inspired Greene's novel The End of the Affair.

• Greene was a film critic, screenwriter, and avid moviegoer, and critics have sometimes praised the cinematic quality of his style. His most famous screenplay was The Third Man, which he cowrote with director Carol Reed. Recently, new film adaptations have been made of Greene's novels The End of the Affair and The Quiet American. Greene's work has also formed the basis for an opera: Our Man in Havana, composed by Malcolm Williamson. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Had [Greene] decided to believe his own tale, and told it with simple conviction, it might have been hair-raising.... Instead, he has used tricks, and achieved mostly unreality. His characters lack bone, flesh, and blood, and only occasionally seem lifelike. They are dumb when convenience requires, smart when convenience requires, rarely showing initiative on their own.
James M. Cain - New York Times (10/28/1958)

The ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety
William Golding - Author (Lord of the Flies)

As comical, satirical, atmospherical an ‘entertainment’ as he has given us.
Daily Telegraph - (UK)

Nobody should be anywhere near power who hasn't read (or seen the film of) Our Man in Havana, a powerful satire on the silly world of spying by a man who had experienced it
Mail on Sunday (UK)

No serious writer of this century has more thoroughly invaded and shaped the public imagination than did Graham Greene.

He had a sharp nose for trouble and injustice. In Our Man In Havana—a witty send-up of an agent's life —it was Cuba before Castro.
Financial Times

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

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Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Our Man in Havana:

1. What kind of man is Wormold? Do you consider him heroic? Or would you describe him as a Walter Mitty type, at heart a decent but vacuous being? Why would Graham have made Wormold the novel's protagonist?

2. Why does Wormold agree to accept Hawthorne's proposal to become an agent for the British government? If he had refused, what might have happened?

3. What is the joke about the vacuum cleaners that Wormold sells...as does Mr. Carter. Don't neglect to talk about the product names.

4. Hasselbacher is perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, certainly his pithy sayings are. How would you describe his world view or philosophy toward life? What does he mean when he says to Wormold? ...

You are interested in a person, not in life,
and people die or leave us....But if you're
interested in life, it never lets you down.

Hasselbacher also compares people to crossword puzzles. Can you explain, or expand on, that comparison? Do you agree with his observation? What are some other observations of his that strike you?

5. Follow-up to Question #4: Who is Dr. Hasselbacher—is he an agent? Or is he an innocent by-stander who gets swept up in Wormwold's intrigue? How does he become involved with Raoul? How does he know to warn Wormold about the European Traders' Association luncheon? Is Hasselbacher a martyr of sorts (consider the quotation in Question #4)?

6. What do you think of Beatrice? Why was she not sad to see her husband leave her? Why is she so delighted when Wormold confesses to her that his spying operation has been a sham?

7. What does the last line of the novel mean—and what precipitates Beatrice's thought? What does the future hold for their relationship?

8. Why isn't Wormold summarily fired? Why does the service keep him on—and even award him the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

9. In what way is this novel a sly comment on the work of an author, writing a novel?

10. This is a work of satire. What is Graham satirizing? Do you consider this a cyncical novel? Is it humorous? Consider the era in which this novel was written...and also the events of the Cuban missle crisis three years after the novel's publication.

11. Does Captain Segura represent pure evil?

12. Consider James Cain's 1958 review in the New York Times (see "Book Reviews" above). Do you agree with his assessment of this novel...or does he miss the mark?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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