Our Man In Havana (YGtCTO Words #18)

Book written by Graham Greene

I find Graham Greene inhabiting that space between Eric Ambler and Evelyn Waugh, just to name three authors who have significantly populated my reading list for the past decade. I suppose these have been the years of comic espionage (or Twentieth Century English writers of substance if we want to be haughty). I don’t exaggerate as I could possibly exhaust all their works in the next couple years when I will have moved deep into their travelogues and short stories. I long ago passed peak distancing irony.

Greene appears to have been well-enough liked by the book reviewers of his day, but he moved into the stratosphere with The Power and the Glory, a chronicle of one priest’s experiences in Mexico during the abolition of Catholicism there in the 1930s. The book is strengthened by a surprising verisimilitude- surprising until one comes across The Lawless Roads, Greene’s reportage of his trip to Mexico just as the retrenchment of the faith had begun. The novel is powerful. The travelogue captures an uncomfortable, prejudiced visitor faced with xenophobia and hardships on the far side of adventure travel. The non-fiction presents Greene as judgmental, rarely granting kind words to place, person or meal. In comparison to such writing, the novel has only sympathy and kindness for the country and the people. The villains are three dimensional and wisdom erupts from page after page. I read Power before Roads and still found it illuminating how Greene revisited his experience and evolved his thinking. Surely, he discarded neither his faith nor some of his prejudices, but he allowed himself to grant full lives to the people he had met- no greater gift can an author make.

Our Man in Havana and The Comedians make good Caribbean bookends and they feel like the most accessible of Greene’s works. The Quiet American is another critical classic, though this mixes in a lot more dashing adventure with the social commentary than The Power and the Glory. I tend to prefer the book that first showed me the way with an author, so I have highlighted Havana. Monsignor Quixote is another great read. Even if you haven’t read its namesake, the humorous perambulations documented should keep the darkness at bay.

Many of Greene’s works have been made into movies after the great success of The Third Man. Of all of them, I like Our Man In Havana with John Gielgud the best (and uniting Carol Reed with Greene once again), but something in Greene’s work seems to bring out the best in a lot of adapters and directors.

I want to wonder about the appeal of this triumvirate of authors, but then it becomes obvious. The urge to picture them all as Victorian vicars with long beards has to give way to the reality that they looked like nothing of the kind and were mostly my age when they wrote their books. The questions change as the years pass. Maybe we forget that we need different artists at different times and the blessing is finding them in the right moment.

You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 247 more to go.

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