Our Man In Havana

Graham Greene's droll cold war classic, Our Man in Havana, is a brisk, fun read. The novel is about an average single father Englishman who lives in Havana (naturally) and sells vacuum cleaners. A British Secret agent recruits him to spy on the Cubans (this is set and written in 1958, and circumstances eerily predict what was to come), and pays him for his information and any additional contacts. Wormold (the cleaner salesman) has debts of his own to pay and a frivolous daughter to support, so he invents contacts and details to send back to London to keep the steady pay. Unexpectedly, he creates a furor over his reports, so that not only do they send staff to help him (an accountant whom he finds attractive but yet must keep her from finding the truth) but some of his made up stories start apparently coming true as the other side perceives him as a real threat.The angle of the story is decidedly more humorous and satirical than serious, although it does lend itself nicely to several moments of real tension. Greene wonderfully blends humor, mystery, and romance into a tight, immensely enjoyable novel...

...Except for one thing. The book, as I mentioned, written in 1958, has three (and really only three) instances of casual racism, where a character will use a taboo phrase to describe a black person. The character in the book doesn't use it for slanderous purposes, but I found the usage absolutely jarring. It is tough to start reading a book in 2008 when the first line of the novel is, "You see that n*gger over there?" I've never been a fan of retroactive editing (apologies to George Lucas), but how many people would be offended if that one word were changed to be a little less garish? Would it destroy the integrity of an otherwise fabulous classic? I know, it's a part of the culture or (lack of) sensitivity of the times, and we don't want retro-visioned history, and certainly I don't want to be thought of as PC, but ultimately it will be one of the things I always remember the novel for.

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