Greene without the angst?

I've loved Graham Greene ever since I first read The heart of the matter when I was a student. As someone who manages to have their fair share of Catholic angst (without being a Catholic), I suspect that was what first drew me to him. But it's easy to forget that there are several Graham Greenes - the best known is the one who battles with morality, and what it means to be human. This is the one that's clearly evident in Brighton Rock, The heart of the matter, and The end of the affair

Then there's the Greene who's a great thriller writer. The Greene who wrote Stamboul Train, for instance. Sometimes his spy stories and morality fables combine, and then you might get a work such as The human factor. What I had completely forgotten until I re-read Our man in Havana was the other reason why I love Graham Greene - he can be a brilliant comic writer. I defy anyone to read Our man, and not hoot with laughter most of the way through it.

The novel is partly based on Greene's own wartime experiences as a spy, where he recalled German spies in Lisbon making up stories to report back to Berlin, as it was better to have something to report than nothing (for more on this, it's worth reading William Shirer's account of spies in Lisbon in Rise and fall of the Third Reich).

Our man in Havana is about vacuum-cleaner salesman, Jim Wormald, who lives with his 17 year old daughter, Milly, in the Cuban capital in the last days of the Batista regime. Promised money by the British Secret Service if he can assemble a ring of agents, Jim does exactly what he's told....the only problem is he has no idea how to recruit anyone, or even what information would be useful to MI6, so he makes it all up. Unfortunately he proves to be a much better "novelist" than a spy as the Secret Service are convinced that every word he writes is true, and he soon becomes the best agent in the Caribbean. Unfortunately it's the middle of the Cold War, the rebels are about to come to power in Cuba, and certain East German interests think it would be much better if Wormald and his "agents" were out of the way.

It's a gloriously daft, silly story, but also truly heart-warming. I loved poor Wormald with his unexpectedly active imagination, would-be lover the delightful Beatrice, and the sinister Segura. As with any Greene there's a focus on morality, but it's done with a wonderfully light touch. In some ways it reminded me of other great comic writers such as Evelyn Waugh, but it is also indubitably Graham Greene.

Perhaps rather surprisingly, the novel was turned into a film, and filmed in Havana, just after Fidel Castro came to power. Castro wasn't a fan, as he felt that both book and film down-played the evils of the Batista regime. I think Castro's got a point here, but this is Greene at his most light-hearted, musing about the Cold War. This could have been a very dark tale, instead it's an irresistible satire. Why not turn on the Piazzolla, drink a rum punch, and settle under a coconut tree with this most engaging of comic novels?

That's it from Bookhound for a few weeks. I'm off to the Cevennes for walking, swimming, wolf spotting and a lot of reading. A bientot!


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