Thursday, 15 November 2012

Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene 1958

This book shows the most interesting use of the English language: especially in abstracts, sentences and even phrases – in its most condensed forms – Greene’s brilliance and wit turns into beauty. Thus, if you are a planner and if you always struggle with writing perfect propositions (of course you are, we all are) you should read this:

„Shut in his car Wormold felt guilt nibbling around him like a mouse in a prison-cell. Perhaps soon the two oft hem would grow accustomed to each other and guilt would come to eat out of his hand.“ (Greene, 1958, p.74).

At the birthday party of his daughter, one of her admirers shows up and invites them: „’Nonsense. You are my guest. It is only just after midnight.’
Wormold’s sleeve caught a glass. It fell and smashed, like the birthday party.“ (Greene, 1958, p.87).

„Captain Segura bowed stiffly. You could not estimate his danger from his size any more than you could a hard drink.“ (Greene, 1958, p.89).

„Capatain Segura squeezed out a smile. It seemed to come from the wrong place like toothpaste when the tube splits.“ (Greene, 1958, p.89).

„You can’t love and be confident as he was. If you love you are afraid of losing, aren’t you?“ (Greene, 1958, p.103).

„Sometimes he was scared at the way these people grew in the dark without his knowledge. What was Teresa doing down there, out of sight? He didn’t care tot hink. Her unabashed description of what life was like with her two lovers sometimes shocked him.“ (Greene, 1958, p.106).

That’s enough human insights to make do for the next couple of month as a planner. More importantly, if you are not a planner, you can just enjoy Greene’s writing. And also how philosophical topics are played with and mixed into everyday examples – through Greene’s mastery of language.

„’Do you never worry about anything?’ ‚I have a secret defence, Mr Wormold, I am interested in life.’ ‚So am I, but ...’ ‚You are interested in a person, not in life, and people doe or leave us – I’m sorry; I wasn’t referring to your wife. But if you are interested in life it never lets you down. I am interested in the blueness of cheese.’“ (Greene, 1958, p.6).

„He thought of the day ten years ago and then with uneasiness of Milly, and he wished he had not answered so many questions. He also wished that the snap-action coupling had coupled for once with a snap.“ (Greene, 1958, p.10).

„’I’ve got the Calvert, but not the Taylor. It was kind of you to remember my collection, Hasselbacher.’ It always seemed strange to Wormold that he continued to exist for others when he was not there.“ (Greene, 1958, p.33).

He brings drinking and the following to with charm and wit live. For example when Hasselbacher runs through the city spending the 140.000$ that he will win with the lottery ticket he just bought: „’Pardon me,’ a voice whispered out of the shadows, ‚has this guy really won a hundred and forty thousand bucks?’ ‚Yes, sir, I have won them,’ Dr. Hasselbacher said firmly before Wormold could reply, ‚I have won them as certainly as you exist, my almost unseen friend. You would not exist if I didn’t believe you existed, nor would these dollars. I believe, therefore you are.’ ‚What do you mean I wouldn’t exist?’ ‚You exist only in my thoughts my friend. If I left this room ...’ ‚You’re nuts.’ ‚Prove you exist, then.’ ‚What do you mean, prove? Of course I exist. I’ve got a first class business in real estate: a wife and a couple of kids in Miami: I flew here this morning by Delta: I’m drinking Scotch, aren’t I?’ The voice contained a hint of tears. ‚Poor fellow,’ Dr Hasselbacher said, ‚you deserve a more imaginative creator than I have been. Why didn’t I do better for you than Miami and real estate? Something of imagination. A name to be remembered.’ (...) ‚You think you’re drinking Scotch. Or rather, tob e accurate, I have imagined you drinking Scotch. But we’re going to change all that,’ Dr Hasselbacher said cheerily, ‚I’ll just go out in the hall for a minute and think up some real improvement.“ (Greene, 1958, p.37).

The general story of ‘Our Man in Havanna’ is about reality and how it can be formed. Simply by imagination. Wormold, an English vacuum cleaner salesman lives and drinks in Cuba and struggles to afford the lifestyle his daughter expects. „He loved her when the duenna was there, and he loved her even more when the duenna was absent: he couldn’t afford the time not to love. It was as if he had come with her a little way on a journey that she would finish alone.“ (Greene, 1958, p.29).

By accident he gets hired by the English secret service. A job that never fails to be a joke. „’But the vacuum cleaner stake up a great deal of time.’ ‚They are an excellent cover,’ Hawthorne said. ‚Very well thought out. Your profession has quite a natural air.’ ‚But it is natural.’“ (Greene, 1958, p.41).

„The Chief sat behind a desk on which an enormous green marble paper-weight held down a single sheet of paper.“ (Greene, 1958, p.43).

But instead of finding out real secrets (a job he is neither capable of nor willing to do) he uses the names of people he knows vaguely and invents personas and information around them.

„’What sort of information?’ ‚Secret information.’ Dr Haselbacher sighted. He said, ‚You are a lucky man, Mr. Wormold. That information is always easy to give.’ ‚Easy?’ ‚I fit is secret enough, you alone know it. All you need is a little imagination, Mr. Wormold.’ ‚They want me to recruit agents. How does one recruit an agent, Hasselbacher?’ ‚You could invent them too, Mr Wormold.’ (...) And there is something about a secret which makes people believe ... perhaps a relic of magic. (...) But remember, as long as you lie you do no harm“ (Greene, 1958, p.59).

He takes economic reports from the local newspapers and also comes uop with some secret constructions site in the mountains – discovered by one of his agents. The drawings of this construction site he simply adopts from the technical drawings of his vacuum cleaners.

The more agents he hires, and the more information he delivers the more money he earns. This success doesn’t go unnoticed: he is provided with a team from the Secret Service. But also the ‘other side’ becomes interested (probably just thinking: the Secret Service rewards him so highly, so his information must be very important). By this self sustaining circle, inventions, become facts with real consequences.

The police searches and destroyes the interior of Hasselbacher’s flat: „A small room, which had been converted into a laboratory, was now reconverted into chaos. (...) He sat heavily down on a tall tubular adjustable chair, which shortened suddenly under his weight and spilt him on the floor. Somebody always leaves a banana-skin on the scene of a tragedy.“ (Greene, 1958, p.72).

All his invented agents and facts become so real that the ‘other side’ kills one of his agents and nearly shoots another. In a trick involving one of the admirers of his daughter, a captain of the Cuban police, he gets himself, his daughter and his assistant Beatrice – whom he is in love with - out of the country. Ironically he obtains one piece of true information from the Captain, but that is the piece that the Secret Service doesn’t take for real – now that they know the whole hoax. But since they don’t want to lose face, by showing that they have been tricked by him, give him an O.B.E. And he decides to start a live with his former assistant

The woman he’s in love with talking to his daughter Milly:„’If I love him, why shouldn’t I?’ ‚He’s married.’ ‚Milly, dear Milly. Beware of formulas. If there’s a God, he’s not a God of formulas.’“ (Greene, 1958, p.192).

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