Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene

By , May 30, 2004

The last time I wrote about a book here, the results were less than spectacular– the resultant blog was downright dismal. I shall do my best to redeem myself with this, my third blogged book report.

Graham Greene is an author whose works I’ve long meant to explore. His name is always popping up, and it sometimes seems that everything he ever wrote was turned into a really good movie. It was actually a movie that finally lead me to read one of his books. I read This Gun For Hire after seeing the film of the same name, a noir classic featuring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (*swoon*), and was utterly enthralled by Greene’s wordcraft. Here, I said, is a man who knows how to write! Subjects, predicates, adjectives, adverbs– it was all there. I was most pleased; it had been well worth the effort of locating the book. (And believe me, it wasn’t easy to find a copy of This Gun For Hire. After about a year spent browsing the “G” section of any bookstore I happened across, I finally found a copy of the novel.)

On the plus side, the hunt allowed me to familiarize myself with Greene’s other works, for I began to recognize titles I’d seen repeatedly while vainly seeking This Gun for Hire. Of all the titles I’d seen during my quest, one leapt out at me every time I saw it: Our Man in Havana. I liked the sound of that. He’s our man in Havana– our on-the-spot spy keeping his finger on the pulse of all developments in Cuba– and decided that that would be the Greene book I next read. So I read it.

I don’t want to spoil the surprises, so I won’t say too much about the story. I’ll tell you this much– it is a farcical tale of a vacuum cleaner salesman recruited to be a spy for the British Empire in Cuba. He invents associates and plots in order to please his superiors, and earn money. He begins to do his job too well and things begin to unravel, with disastrous, albeit hilarious, results.

The style of humor in this novel is precisely the sort I adore. It builds very slowly, and is quite dry. I get the feeling that more than a few people I know could read this book and not realize that anything was meant to be funny; the wit is of an intensely intellectual nature. Which is not to say it takes a rocket scientist, or in this case perhaps a PhD in English, to get the joke. I only mean to say that this is not in-your-face Adam Sandler Humor-4-Dummiez at work. There is a subtlety to both Greene’s writing and his wit that I don’t think can be appreciated by all readers. I am trying to think of one of those “it’s like Fad Gadget meets Steely Dan” sort of descriptions, as they are very popular lately, but the best I can come up with is that Greene crafts sentences that flow with the effortlessness of Hemingway, while dappling them with the razor-sharp wit of Wodehouse; he writes really well and he makes me lol.

Greene also makes the reader privy to the peculiarities of pre-Castro Havana. While researching for this blog I found a great quote from Graham Greene himself, explaining why he chose Havana as the setting for the novel. “In the meanwhile I had visited Havana several times in the early fifties…Suddenly it struck me that here in this extraordinary city, where every vice was permissible and every trade possible, lay the true background for my comedy.” That aspect of the city definitely comes to light in this story.

Summary: I hella enjoyed this book, Graham Greene is now among my favorite writers, and I’m about to read another of his novels, Brighton Rock.

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