Graham Greene's OUR MAN IN HAVANA
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This is a grim but witty tale of Cold War skullduggery in pre-revolution Cuba. An expatriate British vacuum cleaner salesman whose teenage daughter has expensive tastes agrees to serve as a paid informer for the British secret service. He starts inventing agents and intelligence reports in order to pad his monthly expense reports.
All seems innocuous till people start getting killed. Someone, it seems, is taking his reports seriously.
The hot, fetid, alcohol-soaked and vice-ridden view Greene presents of a deteriorating Havana seems real and reminiscent of the colonial Saigon in another Greene novel, The Quiet American. Instead of satirizing Americans as he does in that novel, Greene acidly skewers British character and colonialism. Satire as well as class- and race-based references abound.
Sometimes the satire is pretty heavy handed, as in the rather shallow treatment the London based intelligence administrators receive. Also not well done is the relationship between the main character and his teenage daughter. While I had to laugh at how she manipulates her dad into buying her a pony, I can’t fathom how he acquiesces so easily to her accepting rides from the Cuban police captain who, people say, has a “…cigarette case covered with human skin.”
Still, the police captain is the most interesting character in the novel. Listen to his description of who is “torturable” and who is not. Greene’s ability to make your skin crawl while delivering humor is uncanny.
Our Man in Havana is a fun read. It’s not profound but it does entertain and makes you think back to the days of the Cold War and how much has changed — and how much has not.
Review copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald