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Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Our Man in Havana (original 1958; edition 1997)

by Graham Greene

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3,492771,520 (3.87)231
Title:Our Man in Havana
Authors:Graham Greene
Info:Folio Society, Hardback
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:thriller, Folio Society, fiction, anglophone

Work details

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene (1958)

  1. 31
    The Tailor of Panama by John Le Carré (chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: Le Carré's 1996 novel was inspired by Greene's "Our Man in Havana".
  2. 20
    Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (alalba)
    alalba: In both books the main character makes up stories as a way of keeping his job, in both cases, they become reality.
  3. 10
    The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell (terrazoon)
    terrazoon: Good satires are hard to find. Although the subject matter is different, if you like one you will probably like the other.
  4. 00
    The Fat Plan by Glen Neath (sanddancer)
  5. 01
    The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad (LamontCranston)
  6. 01
    My Life In CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 by Harry Mathews (slickdpdx)

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Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
For the category 'A book that takes place on an island', I chose Our Man in Havana.
Synopsis: Mr Wormold lives in Havana and sells vacuum cleaners. Although he can support himself and his daughter, she wants things that cost more money than he makes. He is recruited by a British agent to work as a spy and recruit more agents, along with supplying information regarding anything that might let the British know if war is brewing in that part of the world. Wormold's oldest friend, Dr. Hasselbacher tells him to take the money offered and make up the reports. Wormold takes this advice and disaster follows because London believes what he has sent them.
Review: This was a well-written book with interesting characters. It makes me wonder just how much of what is reported by spies is actually true or only rumor. ( )
  DrLed | Jun 12, 2016 |
There was always another side to a joke, the side of the victim." (pg. 74)

A Dr. Strangelove-esque spy spoof in which a hapless vacuum-cleaner salesman living in Cuba is recruited by British intelligence and decides to invent agents and stories for his reports. However, people on both sides of the Cold War divide begin taking him seriously, and then people start turning up dead…

Our Man in Havana is Greene's somewhat cynical roasting of the intelligence profession. He exposes the inherent absurdity of some of its aspects, or rather the aspects which are emphasised and exaggerated in spy fiction. Witness, for example, the scene on page 24 when the over-cautious spymaster Hawthorne is trying to recruit our baffled salesman, Wormold:

"Again the explanation that seemed most probable to Wormold was that the stranger was an eccentric inspector from [the vacuum-cleaner company] headquarters, but surely he had reached the limits of eccentricity when he added in a low voice, "You go to the Gents and I'll follow you."
"The Gents? Why should I?"
"Because I don't know the way."
In a mad world it always seems simpler to obey. Wormold led the stranger through a door at the back, down a short passage, and indicated the toilet. "It's in there."
"After you, old man."
"But I don't need it."
"Don't be difficult," the stranger said."

Greene clearly finds the whole system rather silly, and this is the essence of the quote with which I started this review. It's alright to have a joke (whether that's Wormold playing at spies, or the whole lot of them) but people can get hurt. Agents die, countries war, and for what? In Greene's view, people are taking risks "for a Boy's Own Paper game." (pg. 113). He suggests that the East and the West are both as bad as each other, that problems result because of a few ambitious men at the top (pg. 181), and that people should be loyal to love and not to countries (pg. 195).

For the record, I don't agree with Greene's rather half-baked views, and in Our Man in Havana we see the same side of the man who later wrote a naïve defence of defector Kim Philby. (Something I consciously try and ignore when thinking of Greene, who is becoming one of my favourite writers, for Philby was a seriously nasty piece of work.) But if you can ignore this sort of thing – and, in truth, it does seem rather quaint to read about these early-Cold War issues from a 2015 viewpoint – then you'll be entertained by a quick, funny and well-crafted spoof-thriller. Don't feel like you have to admire a writer's political views or personal life in order to admire his writing. Just enjoy the book. After all, it's alright to have a joke but people can get hurt if it is taken too seriously." ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
Not a bad book by any means, but the 150-page set-up seemed to be really excessive when compared to the 50-page climax. Overall, it was a clever, humorous take on the ultra-serious world of international espionage. I don't say this very often (ever?), but I think this book would have worked better as a short story. ( )
  ssimon2000 | May 31, 2016 |
After finishing Adam Sisman's gripping biography of John Le Carre, as a seasoned reader of espionage fiction I realized I had a big gap - I'd not read Graham Greene. I decided to start with "Our Man in Havana", a light-hearted (or mostly so) caper set in Cuba.

Greene's Cuba is by turns comical and threatening. His tone swings from lyrical to prosaic with in a sentence, and paints a loving portrait of the city:

The long city lay spread along the open Atlantic; waves broke over the Avenida de Maceo and misted the windscreens of cars. The pink, grey, yellow pillars of what had once been the aristocratic quarter were eroded like rocks; an ancient coat of arms, smudged and featureless, was set over the doorway of a shabby hotel, and the shutters of a nightclub were varnished in bright crude colours to protect them from the wet and salt of the sea. In the west the steel skyscrapers of the new town rose higher than lighthouses into the clear February sky. It was a city to visit, not a city to live in, but it was the city where Wormold had first fallen in love and he was held to it as though to the scene of a disaster. Time gives poetry to a battlefield, and perhaps Milly (his daughter) resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.

Mr. Wormold is a British vacuum cleaner living in Cuba who is approached by Hawthorne, a representative of British secret service, promising easy money in return for Wormold acquiring secrets. Wormold needs more money to help finance the spending habits of his 16-year old daughter Milly.

There's only one problem: Wormold doesn't know any secrets. Drinking with his friend Doctor Hasselbacher (drinking is everywhere in this book), they hit on it:

All you need is a little imagination, Mr Wormold.
They want me to recruit agents. How does one recruit an agent, Hasselbacher?
You could invent them too, Mr Wormold.
You sound as though you had experience.
Medicine is my experience, Mr Wormold. Have you never read the advertisement for secret remedies? A hair tonic confided by the dying Chief of a Red Indian tribe. With a secret remedy you don't have to print the formula. And there is something about a secret which makes people believe . . . perhaps a relic of magic....
Have you heard of a book code?
Don't tell me too much, Mr Wormold, all the same. Secrecy is not my business... Please don't invent me as your agent.' ... But remember, as long as you lie you do no harm....
(but I ) take their money...
They have no money except what they take from men like you and me.

Before you know it, Wormold's entirely fictitious "secrets" are infecting the real world, and real people are impacted because of his fake "intelligence". Some of his "fictitious" agents seem to become real....

Our Man in Havana presents a jaundiced view of the intelligence services - where Le Carre paints moral equivalence, Greene paints incompetence and cynicism. At the same time it is a caper and a romp and often hilarious - but there's a dark edge: Segura, the Cuban policeman given to torturing those he needs to (and who wants to marry Milly). He lectures Wormold on the theory of torture over a game of checkers:

Dear Mr Wormold, surely you realize there are people who expect to be tortured and others who would be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.' There's torture and torture. When they broke up Dr Hassel-bacher's laboratory they were torturing . . One can never tell what amateurs may do. The police had no concern in that. Dr Hasseibacher does not belong to the torturable class.
Who does?
The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal. You see, I was right to make that king, and now I shall huff you for the last time.

You always win, don't you? That's an interesting theory of yours.
One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don't recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons, or the prisons of Lisbon or Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.
We're not shocked by that any longer.
It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.

They had another free daiquiri each, frozen so stiffly that it had to be drunk in tiny drops to avoid a sinus-pain.

'And how is Milly?' Captain Segura asked.
I'm very fond of the child. She has been properly brought up.
I'm glad you think so.
That is another reason why I would not wish ou to get into, any trouble, Mr Wormold, which might mean the loss of your residence permit....

But the torturer gets his comeuppance in a scene in a bar when a beautiful woman drenches him with a soda sprayer...

Our Man in Havana is one of the old espionage classics. It laughs at the genre, it laughs at it's characters, and you will laugh along...but some of the laughs are pretty dark. ( )
  viking2917 | Mar 24, 2016 |
The novel is set in Cuba during the regime of Fulgencio Batista (which was to be overthrown by Castro). James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, meets Hawthorne, who offers him work for the British secret service. Wormold's wife has left him for another man and he lives with his teenage daughter, Milly. Since Wormold does not make enough money to grant all his daughter's wishes, he decides to take the offer. For lack of any real information to send the secret service, Wormold begins to deceive them by claiming that he has a network of agents, who actually are people that he knows only by sight. He carries his reports to extremes by sending his clients in London sketches of parts of a vacuum cleaner, telling them that these are sketches of a secret military installation. In London nobody except Hawthorne, who alone knows that Wormold sells vacuum cleaners, doubts this report. Nevertheless Hawthorne does not tell his boss about his doubts. To help Wormold the secret service sends him a secretary, Beatrice Severn, and another assistant.

Beatrice has to contact his "agent" Raúl. To avoid this, Wormold lies that Raúl is on the way to take aerial photographs of the concrete platform and strange machinery, with the intention of later reporting him missing. Wormold soon learns that a pilot named Raúl had had an accident and died on his way to the airport. Beatrice tells Wormold they have to save the other supposed agents because there was an assassination attempt on another of his sub-agents, Doctor Cifuentes. Meanwhile, London finds out that the (unspecified) "other side" intends to poison Wormold at a trade association meeting. Wormold manages to identify the enemy spy, a man called Carter, and spills the poisoned whisky Carter offered him.

Wormold has to get the list of names of the other enemy spies. Captain Segura, who wants to marry Milly, is in possession of it. Wormold gets Segura drunk in a game of draughts where miniature bottles of Scotch and Bourbon are the game pieces. The captain falls asleep and Wormold takes his gun and a microphoto of the list. Avenging the murder of his close friend Dr Hasselbacher, Wormold shoots Carter at night with Segura's weapon. Wormold sends the photograph, his one real piece of intelligence, to London—but it is overexposed and useless.

Hawthorne and the secret service are then told about the deception. Beatrice, who finally learns the truth from Wormold and loves the scam and his ingenuity, is summoned with him to London. Rather than admit they were taken in by his invented sketch, and afraid that their agency would lose all credibility with others if the affair were exposed, the top officers of the service assign Wormold to headquarters and decorate him with an OBE. Wormold and Beatrice want to marry and Milly agrees.

  bostonwendym | Mar 3, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
10 of the Greatest Cold War Spy Novels
“Possibly the greatest writer of prose to devote so much of his time to the theme of espionage, Greene was himself briefly an intelligence agent. His WW 2 experiences in London, dealing with a disinformation-dealing agent in Portugal, provided the impetus for this satirical and prescient look at the spy game. Wormhold, a British vacuum salesman in Havana during the Batista regime, becomes a spy for the MI6 to better provide for his daughter (he’s a single parent). The reports Wormhold concocts involve imaginary agents, whose salaries he collects. But his lively reports begin to greatly interest London, who send in reinforcements, initiating a deadly black comedy of errors, making the hapless agent a Soviet target. In an instance of perfect casting, Alec Guinness portrayed Wormhold in the 1959 film version.”
Toward the end, as we go into a business luncheon at which Wormold is due to die, things begin to warm, and it seems we will get what we came for. But when, for a climax, a dog wanders into the dining room, laps the whisky Wormold spilled, dies, and thus gives warning of poison, things simply fall apart. I never saw a dog drink hard liquor, and don't believe this one did. However, I do believe he could read, and had had a look at the script, to know what he should do. All in all, little as a Greene fan likes to say it, this book misses, and in a thoroughly heartbreaking way, for it misses needlessly where it might have rung the bell.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, James M. Cain (Jul 12, 2011)
For once, Greene's Roman Catholic hang-ups, which make novels such as The End of the Affair so desolate, are kept in check - even joked about. "Hail Mary, quite contrary", prays convent-educated Milly, aged four. Nine years later she sets fire to a small American boy called Thomas Earl Parkman Junior because he's a Protestant - "and if there was going to be a persecution, Catholics could always beat Protestants at that game."

» Add other authors (39 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Greene, Grahamprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Hitchens, ChristopherPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lundblad, JaneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Oddera, BrunoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schaap, H.W.J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Turtiainen, ArvoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vallverdú, JosepTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winiewicz, LidaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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And the sad man is cock of all his jests
First words
'That nigger going down the street,' said Dr Hasselbacher standing in the Wonder Bar, 'he reminds me of you, Mr Wormold.'
The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for her and all loss for him.
You should dream more, Mr. Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.
He was aware whenever he entered the shop of a vacuum that had nothing to do with his cleaners.
In a mad world it always seemed simpler to obey.
As long as nothing happens, anything is possible, you agree? It is a pity that a lottery is ever drawn. I lose a hundred and forty thousand dollars a week, and I am a poor man.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0142438006, Paperback)

Graham Greene?s classic Cuban spy story, now with a new package and a new introduction

First published in 1959, 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. To keep his job, he files bogus reports based on Lamb?s Tales from Shakespeare and dreams up military installations from vacuum-cleaner designs. Then his stories start coming disturbingly true.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:23 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Follows the plight of Wormold, a former vacuum cleaner salesman, who becomes a slave to the expensive whims of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Milly, and takes on a job for MI6 as Secret Agent 5920015 to pay for them.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 5 descriptions

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