There are so many reasons for me to love ‘Our Man in Havana,’ even if the first sentence is a sad reminder of a reason to hate it. Graham Greene was a man of his time; to take this further, Graham Greene was a white British man of his time and while I am generally comfortable with turning off certain modern sensibilities when reading classic fiction, racial slurs in the opening sentence of a book are never going to endear me to the author, his characters or whatever his eventual message might be.
Fortunately, things quickly improve, at least in part because the humour of the book is not geared at the difference between the Anglo protagonists and their Caribbean setting, but instead takes aim at the British secret service. As it happens, the Intelligence community contains more than enough targets to fill this very funny book, leaving Greene little time for ambiguous comment on the multicultural side characters that cross our hero’s path.
Wormold, for his part, is the perfect example of an unexpected hero. By the time ‘Our Man’ was published in 1958, James Bond had been spying and charming the pants off everyone in Europe, the UK, the US and the Caribbean for half a decade. It’s wonderful to think what 007 would have made of this vacuum cleaner salesman somehow recruited into The Service. Possibly he would have been as impressed as the team back home, who are deeply grateful for the increasingly detailed reports Wormold supplies. Or possibly not.
Personally, I have no need to judge spies by Bond’s standard. Graham frankly invites us to celebrate how Wormold rises to the occasion, doing his best to please his bosses and justify his salary, despite extremely unpromising materials:
‘When he was alone, Wormold unscrewed the cleaner into its various parts. Then he sat down at his desk and began to make a series of careful drawings. As he sat back and contemplated his sketches of the sprayer detached from the hose-handle of the cleaner, the needle-jet, the nozzle and the telescopic tube, he wondered: Am I perhaps going too far? He realised that he had forgotten to indicate the scale. He ruled a line and numbered it off: one inch representing three feet. Then for better measure he drew a little man two inches high below the nozzle. He dressed him neatly in a dark suit, and gave him a bowler hat and an umbrella.’
By the end of the book, I found myself imagining Wormold as a slightly less suave Cary Grant in North by Northwest (which came out the year after ‘Our Man’ was published). He may not have any training or inclination for the Secret Service, but his special combination of confusion and enthusiasm will mean he gets taken seriously by his own side, by the women he encounters and also by the enemy. When I wasn’t laughing out loud, I was gripping the pages in suspense, not just to see if he would get away with it all, but also how he was going to survive with his heart and his life intact.
How much the novel can transcend its historical moment will be up to individual readers. There are joys but also serious problems arising from the historically specific culture it depicts. For me, the joys ultimately outweigh the issues – I’ve both planned on a re-read and also decided that I’ll skip the first page when doing so. I’m aware however that this might say something about my own distance from what the book describes. I suppose my relationship with ‘Our Man in Havana’ will always be a little uncertain and given the plot, characters and tone, this is probably the most appropriate response anyone could have.