Our Man in Havana is not a novel, but an entertainment. And the book’s author, Graham Greene, definitely entertains as he makes fun of the James Bond stereotype.
Mr Wormold is the protagonist, who lives in Cuba with his daughter and unsuccessfully sells vacuum cleaners. One day, a man approaches Wormold in a bar and asks him to follow him to the toilet. Once safely there, the man asks Wormold to be a key figure in the Caribbean spy network. This man is from the British Secret Service and strongly believes in Wormold’s spying potential. And just like that, without any training or prior experience, Wormold is a spy working for the British government.
Hilarity ensues, as Wormold invents local contacts that “spy” for him, including the naked dancer Teresa and drunken pilot Raul, and “discovers” plans for a weapon that is being built nearby. The fact that these plans resemble the inside of a vacuum cleaner doesn’t seem to faze the Chief of the British Secret Service at all.
‘It couldn’t be a vacuum cleaner, sir…’
‘Fiendish, isn’t it?’ the Chief said. ‘The ingenuity, the simplicity, the devilish imagination of the thing… I believe we may be on to something so big that the H-bomb will become a conventional weapon.’
The book was published in the late fifties, but has a relevance today, especially regarding the walking caricature that is Donald Trump. This book is a comedy, with the main aim of mocking the secret services and how they are so entrenched in secrets, that they forget all common sense. There is a ring of truth about it, however, that has you pausing before you laugh at the absurdity of it, because for a brief second you believe in Wormold and the naivety of the secret service. For that brief second, there is nothing to say that you shouldn’t believe it. Then you remind yourself that this book is a comedy and you relax, for something so ridiculous and unexpected could never be true. Could it?
‘If it is secret enough, you alone know it. All you need is a little imagination, Mr Wormold.’
Penguin front cover of ‘Our Man in Havana’, from 1962
Cover photo via Classic Melbourne.