Our Man in Havana (Penguin Classics)

Our Man in Havana - Graham Greene, Christopher Hitchens In a lot of ways this is a brilliant book--or at least brilliantly written, but this first book I've read by Graham Greene also left me feeling it would be my last--thus the less than five star rating since I can't honestly say this hit things out of the park for me. The book was published in 1958 and is set in Cuba in the last days pre-Castro--although no one knew that when it was published. Jim Wormold, mild-mannered vacuum-cleaner salesman, is recruited into the British Secret Service to be their "Man in Havana." Greene himself worked as an intelligence agent, so he certainly knew its ins and outs well enough to spoof it. And lots of his touches are funny and clever. Wormold, who has a teenage daughter with expensive tastes, creates agents who don't exist to charge--and pocket--expenses. And what he does using a vacuum cleaner... Well, I'll let you discover that for yourself. Graham Greene can turn a phrase--often witty and very, very quotable--and his portrait of late 1950s Cuba is at times lyrical, and very memorable. It was a fast-paced, speedy read too. Actually, it's almost a spoof, except there's a bit too much seriousness about it. It's all fun and games until a character you're set up to care about dies. I think if Greene had gone for cynical satire spoofing bureaucracy and spy thrillers I'd have been right on board, but there's an underlying message here that scraped at my sensibilities. At one point, one of the characters says this: I don’t give a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations …. I don’t think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren’t there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries. Well, my country means much to me. I'm not neutral--I do think there was a side worth rooting for in the Cold War, and it wasn't the Soviets and no I don't see the West as their moral equivalents. It's an attitude that bothered me a bit with John le Carre too, but there it felt more as if the point was that in choosing the methods of your adversary, you become like your adversary. Greene seemed here to be more sweeping in his condemnation of patriotism, more derisive of the idea that Western intelligence forces were fighting a good fight. And some died in that fight--in the lobby of the Central Intelligence Agency those employees who fell in the line of duty have an anonymous star on a wall; there are over a hundred of them--and counting. And from the introduction by Christopher Hitchens, I gather Greene, a Castro apologist and friend of Soviet spy Kim Philby, was disingenuous in his seeming neutrality--he was a "supporter of the 'other' side and, above all, culturally and politically hostile to the United States." Had I not read the introduction first, and were it not for a few speeches like the one quoted above, I'd probably have been oblivious to that message and delighted with the story to be honest. Maybe. The serious turn in what started so light-hearted, even farcical, did jar. It's as if much of the second half belonged in a different book. But in the end I couldn't help feeling distaste--losing it a star or two. Which means I'm unlikely to try Greene again given the too-many-books-too-little-time principle.