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The Things We Think We Think: Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene’s second best novel (after The Power and the Glory) would be 1958’s
Our Man in Havana
. The title is almost equally delightful in either its print incarnation or in the slightly adapted film featuring Alec Guinness, and both versions foreground the human capacity for self delusion.

Consider the case of James Wormold, the English expatriate vacuum salesman in Cuba. Approached by the British Secret Service to recruit a circle of spies in pre-revolution Cuba, Wormold proves a singularly inept spymaster. Despite all of his veneer of competence, Hawthorne, the recruiter who approaches Wormold, displays no ability to judge the character of the merchant. Wouldn’t any rational person recognize that a randomly selected retailer–and a not-too-successful one at that–might not turn out to be a capable spook? Wouldn’t such a recruiter take a bit of time to verify the first reports of “our man in Havana”? Of course none of that happens.

The acceptance of Wormold’s string of bogus reports by the ironically titled intelligence forces takes place because of a typical string of human vanities. Wormold, recognizing himself as a failure of a spy, abandons an honest approach to the job and begins to invent reports. Hawthorne, Wormold’s recruiter, fails to see through Wormold’s lies, at least initially, because it is not in his best interest to see through them. In a sort of “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell” operation, Hawthorne remains willfully blind to his subordinate’s actions. Further up the line, the officials in London choose to believe in the grandiose reports that make their own service appear successful. When Wormold’s lies are uncovered, at the cost of at least two innocent lives, the London authorities elect to reward their wayward operative rather than punishing him, since punishment would expose their ineptitude.

Greene’s novel appeared before the Cuban revolution had effected its victory, but the writing had appeared on the wall by the time the book debuted. How could Western governments have gotten Cuba so wrong? To some degree the novel is an answer to that question. Greene, far from being a sour-grapes detractor of all things official, had done time in MI6 during World War II. While the actions described in these pages are clearly exaggerated for comic effect, they revolve around a kernel of truth.

That kernel of truth, however, looms larger than the Cold War or the Cuban situation. Rather than simply relating information about the intelligence forces of modern nations, this novel speaks to much wider human tendencies. In 1 Corinthians 3:18-20 we read

Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.”

The wise men of British intelligence have been caught up in their own craftiness and had their thoughts exposed as futile. By the end of the book, they seem perhaps a tiny bit closer to recognizing their own folly. Or perhaps not.

Posted in Contemporary, English Literature.

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