Friday, June 15, 2007

Review- Our Man in Havana

Take James Bond, turn him on his head, add a daughter, add a bumbling M, and you get Our Man in Havana. This Classic by Graham Greene is an absolutely hilarious and irreverent look at the classical 'spy thriller' genre that so many have come to love.

Set in late 50s Cuba, at the end of the Batista regime and the beginning of the Cold War (with the MADness), this is the same setting that many other authors used as a setting for more adrenaline soaked stories. This one is different. It is the written equivalent of Dr. Strangelove.

Jim Wormold is a typical travelling englishman who's settled down into a happy blissfully ignorant existance in Havana. He's an almost-divorced vacuum cleaner salesman with a product that doesn't sell (whats the use of a vacuum cleaner in a time of irregular power), a very-catholic daughter who has grown to an expensive age and has a suitor who's the local Police Chief (a feared torturer with a cigar case of human skin). And, he's short on money. So, when he is accosted by a extra-secretive MI6 agent, Hawthorne, and offered money to become a spy, he goes against his inner instincts and accepts.

Not that he has any inclination or prowess at the job. What he does have, though, is a very fertile imagination. And this, he puts to great use, conjuring up agents (at the suggestion of his good friend and drinking partner, Dr. Hasselbacher)- a drunk, jobless pilot, a cabaret stripper with a mother to feed, the Doctor with the Mistress and others. Then, there is the secret base in the woods with very funny looking machines that everyone wants to know about. When London decides that Wormold is so good, he needs help, all hell breaks lose as Jim scrambles to clear the mess. Of course, wherever there is a secretary, there usually is a romance, and thats exactly what happens when Ms. Beatrice meets Wormold.

Till now, the plot is a classic comedy of errors. But Jim's imagination pulls him into murky territory when he passes off vacuum cleaner designs as secret military installations, and the competition starts taking Wormold too seriously. Fatal coincidences unravel into assassination, blackmail and betrayal. The reality of this murky underworld shocks Jim, who till then was blissfully happy fooling the MI6 and using the money to make his daughter happy. By the end of the book, there are no overt laughs, but black, grim humor in every word, as Jim tries to escape his situation and seek revenge at the same time. The ingenious checkers game with Captain Segura, the farcical poisoning scene, and Jim's ineffectual attempt to wreak vengence.

(Right: Wormold (
Alec Guiness) and Segura (Ernie Kovacs) play 'shot glass checkers' in a memorable scene from the 1959 Film)

The first half of the book is slightly slow, but has more laughs. The next part is sad, darkly humorous, and absurd, all at the same time. Overall, its a good mix of satire and black humor. Greene has wrung out all the absurdity and satire that epitomizes the Establishment and Spy World (at a time when most of them were Eton-educated Elites). It's a novel about a Secret Service thats eccentric, ridiculous and lethal. Hawthorne is the epitome of the Establishment - exclusive tie, stone-coloured suit and cold, stiff air. The Chief, removed from everyday realities by his literary imagination, is more concerned with trumping the Americans and Naval Intelligence than verifying his agents' reports.

The language is beautifully evocative. The characters are subdued, but memorable, as in all of Greene's works. Wormold is just trying to live a comfortable life to provide for his feisty daughter. Beatrice is the adventure-loving romantic, Captain Segura carries a perceptive cynicism along with his human skin cigarette case, and Dr. Hasselbacher, the most tragic and compelling of all the characters is a man much like Jim, of uncertain loyalties, sad and gentle, and a past he wanted to get away from.

To only treat Our Man... as a satire would be wrong. The Disturbing fact remains that the scenario described in the book can all too easily occur. Unfortunately, (as the story of Garbo below will show), the threat of faked and inaccurate intelligence is all too real (Iraq would prove this). The lessons for Intelligence is quite clear- verify, verify, verify. Our Man... has a deeper message behind its dark and cynical letters. One that is not lightly ignored.

I hope I haven't given much away. Either way, Our man in Havana is a light but engaging read that has become a classic for readers of satire. If you're one of those who can't sit for too long before a book, this one makes a good introduction to Greene's work, which are more serious, but equally good.

Interestingly, Greene based this book on his experiences as a spy for MI6 during WW2 (As his contemporary, Ian Fleming did as well, with his James Bond series). As they needed more trained spies, someone came up with the idea of training intellectuals, a decision which they regretted (apparently, MI6 decided never to recruit thinkers after the experience with Greene). Trained in using Radio, codes, secret writing (including the 'bird shit'), Greene found the whole experience boring and skull-drudgery. Of course, his travels in Africa (Attempting to run agents into the Vichy colonies from Sierra Leone) and Cuba allowed him to gather some intelligence and a whole lot of writing material (The Power and The Glory).

Garbo: The real Wormold

Another side-story that inspired Greene was that of "Garbo" (Juan Puyol Garcia), who tricked the Abwehr by providing fake (but seemingly credible) information that, like Wormold, was completely invented. He was instrumental in convincing Hitler that the Normandy attack was a feint for an actual one at Pas-de-Calais. The story of Garbo is almost as incredible as Wormold's; and the more one reads about him, the uncanny similarities all fall in place. (Read more at this BBC story)

A Nazi-hating Spaniard, Garcia originally offered his services to the British, who repeatedly turned him down. He next went to the Germans, and offered his services as a double agent. Garbo then set to work, inventing details, intelligence, and even agents- 27 in all. A drunken RAF officer in Glasgow and a Communist-hating War Office linguist were amongst the characters the Spaniard invented (uncannily like the drunk Pilot Raul from the book). His other stories included the existence of a massive arms dump under Chislehurst in south-east London, which the Germans even planned to blow up (again, uncannily similar to Wormold). When a particularly audacious attack was not predicted by him, he explained it off as his agent being ill, and hence, unable to gather intelligence. All this, with only a shipping table, A map of England, and a glossary of Military terms.

Ultimately, his usefulness brought back the British in 1942, who put him into their legendary double cross system. From then on, he fed the Germans with low level intelligence, mixed with his ingenious embellishments. Most of his informations, the Germans would learn any way; but since he would tell them first, it improved his standing dramatically. The Abwehr even revealed some of its spies under him (of course, they would be removed quickly by the MI6). The Abwehr never even suspected him. Indeed,
he was so convincing that the Nazis even awarded him the Iron Cross, with direct approval from Hitler himself (Since only Combatants could recieve the Iron Cross). Puyol became the only person to receive both the MBE and the Iron Cross as well. His amazing story was finally released after 50 years, in 1999. And what a story it is!

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