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Last week, Sim solved some of her mysteries about her birthplace in England by having a chat with her older brother, Tina reviewed Eating for England — the second installment of Nigel Slater’s autobiography, and Becky gave me an early boost of Christmas spirit with her review of the children’s book Katie’s London Christmas.
Book: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication date: 1958
Summary: Graham Greene’s black comedy, Our Man in Havana, follows the bumbling efforts of a British-born vacuum salesman recruited as a spy by MI6 in the late 1950s.
Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, before what Cubans call the “triumph of the Revolution.” Modern-day readers detect hints about the end of the Batista regime. But, they aren’t hints at all because Greene had no idea when he wrote the book what would come to pass. Here is one passage that seemed particularly prescient:
No Havana resident ever went to Sloppy Joe’s because it was the rendezvous of tourists; but tourists were sadly reduced nowadays in number, for the President’s régime was creaking dangerously towards its end. There had always been unpleasant doings out of sight, in the inner rooms of the Jefatura, which had not disturbed the tourists in the Nacional and the Seville-Biltmore, but one tourist had recently been killed by a stray bullet while he was taking a photograph of a picturesque beggar under a balcony near the palace, and the death had sounded the knell of the all-in tour ‘including a trip to Varadero beach and the night-life of Havana’. The victim’s Leica had been smashed as well, and that had impressed his companions more than anything with the destructive power of a bullet. Wormold had heard them talking afterwards in the bar of the Nacional. ‘Ripped right through the camera,’ one of them said. ‘Five hundred dollars gone just like that.’ p. 21
A later passage presages the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rick and I both laughed out loud at that one so I won’t quote that here. You’ll want to encounter it fresh in context.
Thoughts: I first mentioned Our Man in Havana in the British Isles Friday piece that I pre-scheduled to post while I was in Cuba. It’s a short book, so I expected to read the whole book during our trip. But, Rick picked it up while we were in Havana. He hardly ever reads fiction so I wasn’t about to insist that he give it back – especially after he laughed out loud at the exact same spot that I did.
British Isles Friday participants will appreciate the humorous ways that Graham Greene illustrates the British mindset in contrast to the Cuban and American ways of being. This passage, when Mr. Wormold attempts to cash a check at an American bank, perfectly and humorously illuminates a stark difference between the Americans and the British:
Drawing a cheque is not nearly so simple an operation in an American bank as in an English one. American bankers believe in the personal touch; the teller conveys a sense that he happens to be there accidentally, and he is overjoyed at the lucky chance of the encounter. ‘Well,’ he seems to express in the sunny warmth of his smile, ‘who would have believed that I’d meet you here, you of all people, in a bank of all places?’ After exchanging with him news of your health and of his health, and after finding a common interest in the fineness of the winter weather, you shyly, apologetically, slide the cheque towards him (how tiresome and incidental all such business is), but he barely has time to glance at it when the telephone rings at his elbow. ‘Why, Henry,’ he exclaims in astonishment over the telephone, as though Henry too were the last person he expected to speak to on such a day, ‘what’s the news of you?’ The news takes a long time to absorb; the teller smiles whimsically at you: business is business. pp. 19, 20
That paragraph reminded me of Watching the English by Kate Fox, a book that I’m looking forward to reading again now that a second edition has been released.
Appeal: Our Man in Havana is a terrific choice for classic literature to accompany a trip (real or virtual) to Cuba.
Reviews: Victoria of Tales from the Reading Room also got a kick out of the Greene’s apparent ability to predict the future in this book. I love her terrific comparison between James Bond and James Wormold — they first appeared on our literary scene in the same year. That’s another point for Greene’s prescience because I would have guessed that Wormwold was a parody of Bond.
Have you read this book? What did you think?