There are a great number of authors who I can take or leave and there are a few that I can reread and reread and reread and there are a select few that I save up their novels for when I feel I need a certain something, a certain lift. Generally these authors are on the optimistic side of things or at least the wryly upbeat and generous of spirit. Think Vonnegut and Tom Robbins. An author in my same category who is less optimistic but still fills me with a warmly satisfying feeling is Graham Greene.
There simply aren’t enough spy novels written that don’t take the spy business deadly seriously. It’s almost a niche market. Graham Greene, in Our Man in Havana, much like in The Third Man, writes a gripping novel yet with the light touch. Amusing little set pieces, somewhat addle-minded careerists, hopelessly unsuave spies, all of these gingerly poke fun at the whole conceit. He never loses sight that there is a much more bloody minded rock that all of this is based on, but he also recognizes that people don’t — can’t — live in these fictionally serious novels filled with angst and death forever and ever. Burnout would be considerably higher among the spy world if things were more like those novels, more single-minded, than like Greene’s less sinister, broader world.
This is also a humanizing touch that makes this novel richer and keener than many a better researched, more technologically precise novel. The curiously single minded relationship with geopolitical exactitude and fidelity to brands and types of eavesdropping equipment render most novels quaint and dated, the exact opposite of an author’s dreams. By focusing on the human, by the touching on the human in extraordinary circumstances, Greene wrote a timeless novel that just happens to also be a page turning thriller and slick spy novel to boot.
Our Man in Havana tells the story of James Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba with his teenage daughter Milly, a charming girl who seeks to live above their means. Somehow, through mistaken motivations, Wormold is “drafted” by the British spy services and ends up working for his home country in order to buy her the things she wants. The novel is filled with such lovely misunderstandings and dimly grasped actions and reactions. When our man Wormold tries to hire his employee in the vacuum cleaner shop as his spy subagent, the man believes he is asking him to pimp for him, which leads into a long winding speech on the glories of Cuba and the passions of old age.
Unsuccessful as a spy or a spy recruiter, Wormold takes to inventing his agents in his reports, something his remote status allows him, the distance between London and Havana isolating him from snoopy oversight. When his superiors are impressed with the details of the plans he’s “uncovering,” they send him more agents, specifically a radio operator and a secretary named Beatrice Severn with whom Wormold falls in love. This is where the plot of misdirection really moves into high gear as Wormold desperately tries to keep all his plates spinning while the Cuban government begins to take an interest in this British “spy.”
Spooks on both sides, double crosses, pressure from a reputedly sadistic military officer for Wormold to bless an engagement to his daughter, Milly, lying to his own team, all these elements mix and jostle and slosh together. Greene handles it all with a light and deft touch and for all his feckless bad choices, you can’t help liking Wormold even as the plot unfolds then spirals way, way, way out of his control and people begin to get killed for his mistakes. After a point, as in The Third Man, Greene’s novel develops a kind of seriousness about what’s at stake, the book’s closing chapters resembling more Greene’s other famous undercover agent novel, The Quiet American.
Part of what also makes Greene’s novels so compelling is how moral they are, and I don’t simply mean moral in a sense of this is bad and this is good and that’s all there is. His morality is complex but oftentimes straightforwardly simple, and it rings throughout his work, a kind of jaded sensitivity to simple and kind people over the unduly complex. Rollo Martins in The Third Man is a simple bumbling kind of good person, and it’s clear that while Greene clearly has an admiration for Harry Lyme, his sympathies are firmly in Martins’ camp. Likewise, even the liar and double-crosser James Wormold and the jaded, bitter Thomas Fowler are Greene’s “heroes” for all their flaws.
And this humor, this sympathy with awkward, imperfect amateur sleuths and spies, makes that moment when we shift to a dangerous turn in the novels far more painful, far more serious, far more real. To come into a trashed apartment in a dark brooding book is of a piece with that selfsame the same atmosphere; to come into a trashed apartment in a book with a lighter note is to be shoved into an alien world, dangerous, your pulse quickens because it is so different. Even more so when it happens to the kind of person such things don’t happen to.
While I know Greene wrote simply scads of novels and there’s little concern to dole them out so sparingly, I also know that his interests were broad, his stories were varied, and many of his other novels are serious reflections on his Catholic faith. The really great Greene novels are the ones I salt away for that bad patch when nothing I’ve read seems very good or worthy of my concentration. Our Man in Havana, like The Third Man, like the best of Greene, is one of those doled out gems that once read move effortlessly into another category, the reread and reread and reread treasures.