While the Caribbean may have provided a backdrop to the world’s most famous spy, it was also home to one of the most unlikely heroes in the world of fictional espionage. Written in 1958, only a few months before Fidel Castro seized power in the Cuban revolution, Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana presents a damning picture of comical incompetence at the top levels of the British intelligence services.
An Unwilling Spy
Jim Wormwold may not match James Bond for his glamorous life as a secret agent, but Greene’s character makes the most of a difficult situation to become a big player in pre-revolutionary Havana. A modestly successful vacuum cleaner salesman, Wormwold is unwillingly recruited to keep an eye on activities in Cuba for the British government. At first unhappy to get involved, he soon sees the opportunity to provide for his demanding daughter the lifestyle she so craves. When he has nothing to report, he soon lets his imagination go wild and the resulting excitement he creates in London and Havana soon spins out of control.
Like all good novels by Graham Greene, the main action takes place in a series of seedy bars and involves lead characters whose lives are often dominated by the need for their next drink. As the plot unravels we are taken through many of Havana’s well-known watering holes, including some of the same ones previously frequented by that other famous Havana drinker, Ernest Hemingway (like the Floridita pictured above, birthplace of the daiquiri).
It is remarkable that Greene wrote this story so close to the Cuban revolution. What is yet more surprising is that in 1959 he was given permission by the newly formed Castro regime to make the movie of the book. It was a time of chaos and with the regime not yet aligned with the Soviets, the film producers were given free rein to do as they pleased. As a result, Our Man in Havana remains one of the few outside productions shot freely in communist Cuba.
Visit Cuba in 2012 and you’ll find plenty of references to Hemingway in the bars of its capital city. You are of course unlikely to find Wormwold’s vacuum cleaner shop, although if you do you might want to speak quietly as you pass by. After all, spies do come in the most unlikely of guises.
Photo | Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha”