Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sent to spy on a Cuban talent show

Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana is a delightful farce that manages to be serious and laugh out loud funny at the same time. It follows the unfortunate Wormold, a British vacuum cleaner salesman in Havana whose shortage of funds finds him willing to accept an offer to join the British Intelligence Service. As a generally inept and careless person, he can do any actual spying, so he ends up sending fake reports back to London so that he can use his expense fund to pay for his daughter's many expensive needs. It all goes swimmingly until his reports begin to create crises.

The book reads as a humorous novel. The spy characters are nearly all idiotic buffoons who can't see Wormold's creations for the poorly assembled tales they are. There is intrigue all around Wormold who is incapable of seeing it correctly. There is also plenty of domestic farce as his daughter leads him into a series of misfortunes.

The book can be read just as humor, but Greene has more to say than that. On the personal level, Wormold is the sort of weak person who takes the wrong path because it is easy and available. Most (if not all) of the tragedy in the book is a result of his careless approach to life. What's more, despite being a spy story, it's message is that the intelligence world is a world filled with fools whose damage far outweigh any benefit they provide. At the end of the book, a few characters explicitly reject the Cold War, but the book is an implicit rejection of the conflicts that grind up individuals for some higher purpose.

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