It was Christopher Hitchens that sparked my interest in Graham Greene; I read his introduction to a new edition of Greene’s The Orient Express in Hitchens’ 2004 collected essays, Love, Poverty, and War. Even more recently, Hitchens lent his pen to Penguin’s new publication of Our Man in Havana, one of Greene’s well-known “comedic” novels (as distinct from his “serious” novels like The End of the Affair, a distinction made by Hitchens himself). As I recently had the opportunity to give the book a try, I couldn’t pass it up.
When I call it a “comedic” novel, of course, I don’t mean it is funny in the same way that Mel Brooks films are funny. It’s a “black comedy” or a rather darksome satire, which means that it’s funny only in the sense that it engages our reflex to snort at the absurd1. Much hay has been made of the fact that Greene’s novel presaged the Cuban missile crisis; it’s a case of life imitating art, I suppose, and in this case life had as much, if not more of the requisite absurdity for such a comedy of errors.
The year is 1958, during the tail end of the Batista regime in Cuba, and British expat James Wormold works as a vacuum salesman in downtown Havana. His wife long ago eloped with a young Cuban, and Wormold is left to raise his comely Catholic daughter, Milly, as a single father. His only friend is the elderly German Dr. Hasselbacher, an affable lush whiling away his retirement years drinking daiquiris.
Everything changes when Wormold is recruited by a British spy named Hawthorne to be Britain’s “man in Havana”. It is, admittedly, a good deal, as Wormold gets significant leeway to build his own operation and recruit agents, and receives an income both larger and more steady than that from his lagging vacuum business. But Wormold is no spy, not even when given the opportunity to be; though he accepts Hawthorne’s arrangement (and more importantly, his money), he decides after some delay to fabricate from whole cloth both his network of agents and the suspicious movement of materiel, including ostensible weapons and machines which resembled… vacuum cleaners. When interested parties take this seriously, blood is shed and the entire edifice comes crashing down… sort of.
One is hard-pressed to say which is impugned more in this: that Wormold is so unimaginative he must use (one would imagine fairly obvious) sketches of vacuum cleaners as fictional ordnance, or that the entirety of Britain’s intelligence service failed to notice (with the exception of Hawthorne, who kept his mouth shut lest the situation reflect poorly on him). The entire novel, in fact, seems to be a contest to ascertain just who we hate more: Wormold, the sniveling wretch and liar; the British intelligence service, as represented by a self-serving bureaucrat and a senile leader; or perhaps its Cuba itself, a developing country in the dying throes of autocratic rule, at once exotic and decrepit, glossy and irredeemably corrupt, as represented so aptly by a police captain (Señor Segura) whose predilection for torture, he admits, is based upon the socioeconomic class of the captive.
In other words, Greene has managed quite deftly to lampoon just about every farcical institution within arm’s reach. While the intelligence service in 1958 was perhaps not at the peak of its anti-Communist hysteria (and remember, of course, that Cuba was not yet under the thumb of the Soviet Union), it was still in many respects a masturbatory exercise, creating its own work as it went. And, like all institutions of government, it fails to disclose its failings, preferring to swallow the cost and outcome with (in this case) a stiff upper lip. On the other side of the equation, the Batista regime, as a metonym for every other tin-pot dictatorship that has flourished in the 20th century, was simultaneously cruel beyond description2 and innately self-parodying. I’m given to understand that Castro’s regime later criticized the book (and its film translation) for not adequately portraying the brutality of the Batista regime, but this was clearly not the intent of the book. Greene is a keen enough satirist to allow that Segura has a wallet made of human skin (admittedly that of a torturer himself) and that he lacks any compunction about torturing a member of the “tortureable class” (someone who “expects” to be tortured); this tells us all we need to know about the nature of brutal autocracies. In the same way that Britain (and by popular extension, America) can be simultaneously the last best hope of the world and bumbling, proud bureaucracies, so can Batista’s Cuba be an abhorrent nest of vipers that is simultaneously despicable and not altogether unlikeable3.
Rounding out the trifecta of disappointment is Wormold, a feckless and remarkably unlikeable protagonist who nevertheless appears to come out on top. Economically-motivated and politically disinterested, he’s the embodiment of every other person in the middle of a political cold war whose allegiance is nominal and whose real concerns are pragmatic and not entirely noble. Wormold’s one real glint of humanity is his confused care of his daughter (who is a brat—admittedly precocious—who needs a spanking as much as anything else) and his somewhat predictable developed feelings for the difficult secretary, Ms. Beatrice Severn, who is sent by London to help manage his affairs.
It’s extraordinarily easy to lampoon the Cold War and its clockwork with the benefit of hindsight; it’s much more difficult to lampoon the nature of autocratic dictators, so many of which are still in full, excremental bloom today4. And yet, though of course no one has ever credited a satirist with regime change, it’s important to remember the role that such comedy ultimately plays in the cultural perception of power and leadership. I write from America, where our continued relative stability and prosperity—bordering on profligacy—has made the practice of political satire something approaching droll 1980s standup comedy; I say this not to lampoon our important media institutions like The Daily Show, which do important work, but merely to point out that even the harshest criticism of America’s government is essentially captious. Greene’s novel, among the first and best-known of his comedies, manages to excoriate all its parties while sympathizing with none in particular, which is at least part of a good satirist’s job, and the reason why they ultimately inhabit such an important place in the clockwork of any culture.
- See also Dr. Strangelove.[↩]
- Though I did not personally care for its execution, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao deals at length with the real and serious consequences of armed autocracy.[↩]
- As Wormold says of Segura, who fancies his daughter: “[he] wasn’t a bad chap… but not right for a husband”[↩]
- Though, as of this writing, we now appear to have one fewer with the resignation of Hosni Mubarak from his long-sustained chokehold on Egypt.[↩]