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Our Man in Havana
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Group reads > Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene (April 2020)

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Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
This is a group reads discussion thread for our 1950s themed month....


Our Man in Havana (1958) by Graham Greene

This discussion will open on or around 1 April 2020

Our Man in Havana is set in the Cold War which was a key feature of the 1950s

More about Our Man in Havana...

Graham Greene joined MI6 in August 1941. In London, Greene had been appointed to the subsection dealing with counter-espionage in the Iberian Peninsula, where he had learned about German agents in Portugal sending the Germans fictitious reports, which garnered them expenses and bonuses to add to their basic salary.

One of the agents was "Garbo", a Spanish double agent in Lisbon, who gave his German handlers disinformation, by pretending to control a ring of agents all over England. In fact, he invented armed forces movements and operations from maps, guides and standard military references. Garbo was the main inspiration for Wormold, the protagonist of Our Man in Havana.

Remembering the German agents in Portugal, Greene wrote the first version of the story in 1946, as an outline for a film script, with the story set in Estonia in 1938. The film was never made, and Greene soon realised that Havana, which he had visited several times in the early 1950s, would be a much better setting, with the absurdities of the Cold War being more appropriate for a comedy.

Our Man in Havana predates the Cuban Missile Crisis, but certain aspects of the plot, notably the role of missile installations, appear to anticipate the events of 1962.

Our Man in Havana is one of Graham Greene's 'entertainments,' it tells of MI6's man in Havana, Wormold, a former vacuum-cleaner salesman turned reluctant secret agent out of economic necessity. To keep his job, he files bogus reports based on Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare and dreams up military installations from vacuum-cleaner designs. Then his stories start coming disturbingly true.





Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
I read loads of Graham Greene in the 1970s and then ignored him until a few years ago. In the last couple of years I've been working my way through his bibliography and have yet to come across anything that isn't provocative, well written, original and surprising.

And so it proved with Our Man in Havana (1958) which is intriguing, evocative, humourous and occasionally very funny.

In short, it's another GG winner

I am really looking forward to discovering what others make of this novel


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
After reading this book I bought a DVD of Carol Reed's 1960 cinematic adaptation of Our Man in Havana (Greene also wrote the screenplay)

Here's the trailer...
https://youtu.be/5tTdCoVlBdE

It looks very promising - and what a magnificent cast

Has anyone seen this?

I will report back when I have watched it


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Nigeyb wrote: "After reading this book I bought a DVD of Carol Reed's 1960 cinematic adaptation of Our Man in Havana (Greene also wrote the screenplay)"

This is what The Times said about the 2006 DVD release...

Poorly reviewed on its release, this Cold War black comedy, making its debut on DVD, has remained unfairly in the shadows. Reuniting The Third Man pairing of the director Reed and the novelist Graham Greene, who again adapted his own book for the screen, it stars Guinness as the vacuum cleaner salesman Jim Wormold, recruited against his better judgment by the old- school spook Hawthorne (Coward) to spy for his country.

Reed makes excellent use of his pre-revolutionary Havana locations, mixing the hedonistic sumptuousness of daylight with night-time’s chiaroscuro with aplomb, while an excellent cast have great fun with Greene’s spiky satire.



Susan | 9796 comments Mod
I have enjoyed what I have read of his so far. Liked The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock less so, and was impressed by The Human Factor and The Ministry of Fear.

About halfway through this now and liking it, but not as engaged as I had hoped to be. I think The Human Factor, oddly not his most famous, was the novel which dragged me in the most.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Oh yes Susan, The Human Factor was excellent: gritty and suspenseful, but also extremely subtle and thought provoking. An extraordinary achievement. Both tense and exciting, but also an exploration of the dark arts of espionage, human psychology, and individual relationships. All the characters were credible, fully fleshed out, and fallible.

Our Man in Havana is one of Graham Greene's 'entertainments' so a slightly different vibe, however there are parallels between the two books. Both are about individual vulnerability, especially when pitted against greater forces.

Despite being lighter in tone, Our Man in Havana also has the ring of credibility and authenticity.

Apparently Graham Greene drew on his own experience in MI6 and explored the moral ambiguities raised by his old boss, legendary Soviet double agent Kim Philby. The shadows of both Philby, and fellow traitor Anthony Blunt, add to the sense of art colliding with life, and make this book all too believable.


Jill (dogbotsmum) | 614 comments Graham Greene was one of my mother's favourite authors, so I did read this. I did find the description of Havana well done, with it's sleaze and corruption, making it sound like a pretty dangerous place to be, and to begin with the atmosphere was quite tense but then it just fizzled out. Greene labeled this as an entertainment, and I did find it mildly entertaining, but not funny as my mother would had thought. Probably the best parts for me were the idiots in London, but these scenes were very short and few and far between. I think my decision to stay away from this author has proved to be the right.
I suppose the most interesting thing for me was that a few years after this book was published, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile incidents occurred.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Jill wrote: "Graham Greene was one of my mother's favourite authors, so I did read this."

That's lovely Jill

Jill wrote: "I did find the description of Havana well done, with it's sleaze and corruption, making it sound like a pretty dangerous place to be"

Yes, agreed. I felt I got a really good sense of the place

Jill wrote: "Probably the best parts for me were the idiots in London"

I agree that it is the brief interludes in London which provide many of the book's laugh out loud moments.

Jill wrote: "...the most interesting thing for me was that a few years after this book was published, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile incidents occurred"

Yes. It is fascinating how certain aspects of the plot, notably the role of missile installations, appear to anticipate the events of 1962.


message 9: by Val (last edited Apr 01, 2020 05:34AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1710 comments The Cuban Revolution was ongoing when he wrote the novel, with the outcome still uncertain. By the time the film was released, Fulgencio Batista's regime had been overthrown, so that Cuba was no longer a corrupt anti-communist state ripe for satire, but a revolutionary communist state worryingly close to the US. I think that may be a factor in how the film was received on release, compared with the popularity of the novel as an entertainment.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I was deceived by the GR description that this an espionage thriller. I found none of this tense. I did get the humor and even laughed out loud once.

My review


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Yes, definitely more comedic than thrilling - though at least the espionage part is correct. The comedy is satirical, with the absurdity of the intelligence agencies, and what they get up to, skewered by Greene.

Which bit made you laugh Elizabeth?

There are a few contenders I can think of?


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Val wrote: "The Cuban Revolution was ongoing when he wrote the novel, with the outcome still uncertain. By the time the film was released, Fulgencio Batista's regime had been overthrown, so that Cuba was no longer a corrupt anti-communist state ripe for satire, but a revolutionary communist state worryingly close to the US. I think that may be a factor in how the film was received on release, compared with the popularity of the novel as an entertainment."

That's a very good point Val, thanks - context is everything


message 13: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Apr 01, 2020 08:54AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) Nigeyb wrote: "Which bit made you laugh Elizabeth?"

I didn't mark it - it may have been an accumulation. I stopped even thinking it was truly funny before the halfway mark - it got old.

I'm glad to know his other espionage books aren't like this. Makes me much more likely that I'd read one of them.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
He's certainly very eclectic. It's hard to believe that some of the books are by the same author as they are often so different from each other.

My experience is that the one thing they all have in common is the amazing writing and their excellence.


message 15: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Apr 01, 2020 09:32AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Elizabeth (Alaska) Well, I'll be honest. I read this book at this time because of the discussion. But it was some elements of my challenge that made sure I didn't put it aside. I won't be reading any more of his "catholic" books.


message 16: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1710 comments I think you have to be a Catholic, or brought up as one and lapsed since, to really get his focus in those. I like them, but can readily understand why many don't.


Elizabeth (Alaska) Val wrote: "I think you have to be a Catholic, or brought up as one and lapsed since, to really get his focus in those. I like them, but can readily understand why many don't."

I got his focus, that's why I won't be reading any more of them.


message 18: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1710 comments How do you get on with Evelyn Waugh's Catholic novels Elizabeth?
The split between his serious and entertaining novels is wider than it is with Greene's.


Elizabeth (Alaska) I've read only his Brideshead Revisited, which I loved except for the ending, which was disappointing. I don't know where I thought he should go with it, but "there" wasn't it. Two others are on my over burdened wish list, but I'm not in any hurry to read them. They're sort of on the list, just in case. In case what, I don't know. I probably put them there when I thought I wanted to read a lot of 1001 Books.


Susan | 9796 comments Mod
I agree with you about the end of Brideshead, Elizabeth. I find both Greene and Waugh interesting, but infinitely prefer Waugh as an author.

I am now about halfway through Our Man in Havana. I can't really get into it, but, perhaps I am just not in the mood.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Waugh v Greene? I can't choose - both sublime


message 22: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 4854 comments Mod
Interesting comparison: I appreciate that Green does moral ambiguity in his books but personally I don't get on with them and prefer Waugh. I *loved* the ending of Brideshead: once it happened it seemed inevitable to me though I hadn't expected it in advance.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
I agree RC that there's not that much to link the two writers aside from their convert's zeal for Catholicism. That and their beautiful writing, storytelling chops and effortless lucidity.

I adore Brideshead Revisited which, along with Sword of Honour, is Waugh's finest novel.

Brideshead Revisited is such an absorbing and sumptuous eulogy for the end of the golden age of the British aristocracy. Beautifully written and with so much to enjoy: faith and - in particular - Catholicism, duty, love, desire, grandeur, decay, memory, and tragedy.

I envy anyone who hasn't read it




Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Back to Our Man in Havana, I must confess I am surprised that this isn't proving more of a hit with the RTTC massive

Two 2 star reviews, and Susan not feeling it so far

I found it really interesting, perceptive, well written, original, surprising, and entertaining

Is anyone else planning to give it a go?


message 25: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia | 4854 comments Mod
Give it a go? Not me [shudder] after The End of the Affair!!

But the Sword of Honour trilogy is on my lockdown reading list - good to hear you rate it so highly Nigeyb.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Roman Clodia wrote: "Give it a go? Not me [shudder] after The End of the Affair!!"


It is very, very different - honest.

That said, I see you still bear the scars from Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles


Roman Clodia wrote: "But the Sword of Honour trilogy is on my lockdown reading list - good to hear you rate it so highly Nigeyb."

I loved it. I hope you react the same way. Absolutely superb - I'm smiling just thinking about it


Susan | 9796 comments Mod
Oh, I LOVED the Sword of Honour trilogy. Absolutely brilliant.

I like Our Man in Havana, but, to be honest, I always feel a little removed from the characters with Greene. I read Brideshead when I was at school and fell utterly in love with Sebastian Flyte. I never have those feelings for Greene's characters, although I do find them interesting. It is just a different style and doesn't elicit such an emotional response - in me at least.


message 28: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
I will definitely be reading this one although I am slightly behind at the moment. Will get going on it in the next day or two. I love Greene and think he was a genius.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Judy wrote: "I love Greene and think he was a genius."


I can get behind that Judy


message 30: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
I've started now but am not very far in as yet - I'm enjoying the beginning. Milly is interesting - spoilt and charming. I will be interested to see how her character develops.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Thanks Judy - there are certainly a range of interesting characters. I wouldn't say the characterisation is a particular strength of the book though, its charms lay elsewhere for me


message 32: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
Thanks, Nigeyb - I will be interested to see how it develops.


Susan | 9796 comments Mod
Is this a re-read for you, Judy?


message 34: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
No, first time for me, Susan.


Susan | 9796 comments Mod
Interested to hear your thoughts, Judy. I have finished now and was glad I read it.


message 36: by Judy (last edited Apr 04, 2020 01:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
I've read about 40% now and it does feel slightly familiar, so I'm wondering if I have either read it after all years ago or if I've read something else with the same idea about the reports.

Interesting that Waugh has been mentioned, because the humour in this does remind me a bit of Waugh's books like Decline and Fall, although I think Waugh is better at it judging by the book so far. While I am enjoying this, up to now I would say not one of Greene's best.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 503 comments I'm about half way through at the moment and I'm really enjoying it. I'm a bit distracted and struggling to read anything too serious, but this is working well. I like Greene's comic novels, they always have a bleak undertone and make you think about the human condition, but they also have some really funny moments.

This reminds me a bit of Ashenden, especially (view spoiler)
I like Waugh as well, but I think I'm probably more on Team Greene.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Thanks Pamela


I must confess I'm delighted to read your thoughts on this book so far

I thought I must have been reading a different novel given the reactions so far have ranged from lukewarm to dismissive.

You've nailed the book's appeal here (and Greene's comic novels more generally)....

Pamela wrote: "I like Greene's comic novels, they always have a bleak undertone and make you think about the human condition, but they also have some really funny moments."

And yes, definitely some parallels with Ashenden (another wonderful book)

I can't choose between Team Greene and Team Waugh though - both have huge appeal for me and I love them both equally

Thanks again, I look forward to finding out more about how you feel and react - and I too am finding it hard to concentrate on reading at the moment, and certainly more serious books.


message 39: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
I really enjoyed the chapter set in the nightclub, with the different nationalities and arguments going on, which slightly reminded me of the film Casablanca.


Pamela (bibliohound) | 503 comments I've now finished this and thought it was really good. I liked the mixture of slapstick comedy, one-liners and the darker exploration of morality behind it all.

My review


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Brilliant review Pamela


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Like you Pamela, I felt it's as a satire that this novel is most effective.


As you observe, those London interludes are a scream.

However as you also highlight the novel does not shy away from the darker aspects of espionage - with torture and death a very real risk

Which Greene are you thinking you might read next Pamela?


message 43: by Pamela (last edited Apr 11, 2020 06:39AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Pamela (bibliohound) | 503 comments Nigeyb wrote: "Which Greene are you thinking you might read next Pamela?"

I'm currently reading Travels With My Aunt, which is a Group Read with another group, and that's good fun too. Then I'm going to read a collection of his essays Reflections, which has been hanging around on my shelf for a while.

I quite fancy The Comedians or Stamboul Train too


message 44: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val | 1710 comments I read this one years ago, but did not remember it very well, so read it again. I think Susan's 3.5 rating is about right, but I haven't decided whether to round up or down yet.
My version had an introduction by the author and describes the situation in Cuba when he visited a few times and what the British FO and MI6 were saying at the time. He says that he was satirising British Intelligence more than the pre-revolutionary Cuban regime, but it comes across as satirising both. He does mention the excesses, torture, executions, etc., but it comes across as more corrupt and sleazy than repressive.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Thanks Val - I look forward to reading your review


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Pamela wrote: "I'm currently reading Travels With My Aunt, which is a Group Read with another group "


I read Travels With My Aunt very recently and thoroughly enjoyed it - a really fun novel

I have England Made Me waiting patiently on my shelf for the appropriate moment


message 47: by Judy (last edited Apr 11, 2020 12:53PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
I have now finished, and thought the second half was sheer genius - which makes me suspect that possibly the first half was too and I just wasn't in the right mood! Greene's writing style is always brilliant and there are so many wonderful set pieces, like the vacuum salesmen's dinner and the draughts match.

The business with the drawings at first made me slightly worried it might become farcical, but any farcical elements are very black. I think I will have to reread this in the future (a reread might push it up to 5 stars for me), and also see the film soon.


Nigeyb | 9329 comments Mod
Wow. I'm delighted you got into it Judy. I was fearing the worst. Indeed, I wasn't sure you were going to finish it. And you ended up really enjoying it. How wonderful.

I have a DVD of the film and look forward to watching it soon


message 49: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
I remember liking England Made Me a lot, Nigeyb - the mention of it has made me want to reread that one too. More expats and Catholic guilt, and some great characters, as far as I recall.


message 50: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 4523 comments Mod
Nigeyb wrote: "Wow. I'm delighted you got into it Judy. I was fearing the worst. Indeed, I wasn't sure you were going to finish it. And you ended up really enjoying it. How wonderful.

I have a DVD of the film an..."


Thank you, Nigeyb. I see the film is available on Amazon Prime Video so I will probably watch it there. The fact that it was directed by Carol Reed, who directed The Third Man, has me excited, plus, as you mentioned earlier, a fantastic cast.


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