I have been blessed recently with an abundance of great literature, and my most recent diversion was Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Greene liked to divide his books into ‘novels’, which were about serious things (The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock) and ‘entertainments’ (The Third Man, The Confidential Agent) which he considered more frivolous. By the end of his career, though, he’d begun to blur the lines between the two, and my favorites of his works – The Human Factor, The Quiet American, and now Our Man… – are emotional case studies masquerading as thrillers, stories about lonely men in strange lands, far from home.
Our Man In Havana starts off as a comedy. James Wormold is a vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana, who lives in a state of quiet desperation: his trade is almost nonexistent, his daughter Milly spends his money and cavorts with dangerous government officials, and his only friend is a drunk. He barely exists – as he himself puts it, “It always seemed strange to Wormold that he continued to exist for others when he was not there.” But then Wormold is recruited as a spy for MI6 by the suave but incompetent Hawthorne, a position he accepts mostly to scrimp expenses from the British government. Not knowing any valuable information, and without much idea of where to get his hands on any, Wormold starts filing fake dispatches. He makes up imaginary operatives and gives them names and detailed character backgrounds. He copies the schematics of a vacuum cleaner and submits them as “military installations under construction in the Sierra Maestra”. (“He said one of the drawings reminded him of a giant vacuum cleaner”, says an MI6 official, during an interlude in London. “Hawthorne, I believe we are dealing with something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.”) Over time Wormold comes to love his creative outlet, but as his masquerade spirals out of control, the situation takes a dangerous turn.
I was particularly struck by this passage, which is from about a third of the way through the book:
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 night-club 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 has 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 resembled a little the flower on an old rampart where an attack had been repulsed with heavy loss many years ago.
This passage just floors me every time. It is such a perfect evocation of so many things – of Havana; of loneliness; of love lost. But most of all it’s what I want my writing to sound like; I’m jealous of not having written it myself.