Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Mid-morning daiquiris

I think I became an English major so that I could read 19th century British fiction (Austen [not exclusively 19th century], the Brontës, Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, and oh yes ... the white guy: Dickens). But my experience with the rest of English literature (much less American) is spotty at best. So, when Our Man in Havana popped up in an mp3-only search of our downloadable audiobooks (remember the new Mac), I thought I'd give it a go. After all, Jeremy Northam is reading it.

Author Graham Greene referred to this 1958 novel as an "entertainment" (distinct from his "novels"): "In one's entertainments one is primarily interested in having an exciting story as in a physical action, with just enough character to give interest in the action, because you can't be interested in the action of a mere dummy." I'm not sure I agree with the author -- I found the characters to be well beyond "just enough."

We are in pre-revolutionary Cuba when we meet British vacuum cleaner salesman, James Wormold, having his morning daiquiri with his friend Dr. Hasselbacher. Wormold epitomizes the word ineffectual -- although we never learn how successful he is at selling vacuum cleaners for Phastkleaners, Ltd. (once I learned the spelling of that I had to put it in), I can't imagine he made a very successful living. He is troubled by the expensive tastes of his beloved 17-year-old daughter, Milly -- he just can't say no to whatever she wants. So, when he's cornered in a bar by another Englishman, Mr. Hawthorne, who suggests that he might want to join the British Secret Service, Wormold realizes that this could solve his financial problems.

Wormold begins to show some ingenuity -- producing elaborate reports for London from his fictitious agents (names taken from the telephone book), including drawings of an enemy missile site in Cuba's Oriente Mountains. The analysts in London have never seen anything like them: probably because they are drawings of vacuum cleaner attachments. The novel is definitely comic, as London seems unable to figure out the many ways that Wormold is scamming them -- but then things take a darker turn, as the other "men in Havana" begin to see Wormold as a threat. Yet, it's only slightly darker -- the poisoning attempt on Wormold's life at a luncheon of foreign business representatives is pretty darn farcical.

I liked this. It's always a pleasant surprise when that classic you've been secretly dreading turns out to be pretty darn good. It made me laugh out loud in many places. The foolishness of the secret services is a fairly regular concept in fiction today, but I wonder if Greene's book was seen as just an "entertainment," or as some satiric indictment.

Jeremy Northam reads this so well. He's got just the right touch of humor in his reading, just a hint so you know he's in on the joke. Wormold isn't really clueless, but what's almost an innocent quality comes though when Northam reads his dialogue. There's a lot of opportunity for wonderful vocal characterizations and accents here: kindly Dr. Hasselbacher, menacing Captain Segura, the idiotic, pompous Brits, and various ex-pat denizens of Cuba. Northam reads women fine as well: Milly Wormold has a girlishness that isn't cringeworthy. I've only heard him read once before, but I guess he does a fair amount of narrating for English publishers.

The publisher of this audiobook is new to me: CSA Word. They are "specialist producers of timeless literature on audio," but I don't know ... I'm seeing an awful lot of abridged! (I had to use the amazon.co.uk cover because the publisher's website wouldn't let me grab the cover.) The audiobook begins with some lively, salsa-ish music that takes a bad turn into Welk-ishness when wordless vocalizing begins (dooooo-wah!). The music reappears frequently to mark pauses within chapters. I really don't like it, but I got used to it. When the novel moves to its "Interlude(s) in London" the framing music is a recognizably British instrumental piece (that I can't put a name to, alas). I do like this, and -- more importantly -- I like the fact that the publisher went to the trouble of considering and including the music at all. It just gives a little fillip of added listening interest.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
Narrated by Jeremy Northam
CSA Word, 2009. 7:07

1 comment:

DWD said...

Your description reminded me of a Pierce Brosnan movie, The Tailor of Panama. I did a bit of research and found out it was based on a John LeCarre book that was inspired by Our Man in Havana.

Sounds interesting. Thanks.