The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955) Penguin Classics (2004) 180 pp
My wife noticed that a few of my recent reads have the word “American” in the title, so when I presented her with a few of the books I was considering for my next read, she did not hesitate to choose The Quiet American. I complied, and I’m glad I did. Greene is still new to me (I know, and I like to think I’m well read — this type of situation pulls me back to reality). It was only a few months ago I had my first experience with Graham Greene in his short The Tenth Man. While I liked that novel quite a lot, I was hoping for more. I got it here.
The Quiet American takes place in Vietnam in the early 1950s, not long before the French gave up their colonial dominion. America was warming up to take the baton. However, attention was still being paid primarily to Korea. From my own under-aged perspective, it doesn’t seem that Vietnam was a large worry at this point. The book appears to have been written in retrospect, a decade or two later than 1955, already knowing what was going to happen in Vietnam. As it was written in 1955, however, The Quiet American is incredibly prescient and equally devestating.
The narrator is Thomas Fowler, an older-than-middle-aged British reporter who has been in Vietnam covering the conflict between the French and the Soviet-supported Viet Minh for some years. Thomas has found a degree of contentment in cynicism and neutrality. His ability to avoid any passionate mixup in the battle is strengthened by the fact that he has a beautiful mistress named Phuong who packs his pipe with opium every night before surrendering her body to him. He would like to marry Phuong to secure her presence, but back home in England he has a wife who is staunchly Catholic. However, for the time being, his relationship with Phuong provides him with all of the satisfaction he cares for anymore, so he can distance himself — somewhat — from other conflicts.
Enter the quiet American, Alden Pyle (whom Thomas cannot call by his first name, liking the associations of Pyle too much). Pyle is that unfortunate combination of idealism and ignorance and Congressional support. He has a plan for Vietnam: defeat the Viet Minh by supporting insurgent groups (easy enough), install a leader from the insurgent group, and establish a democracy meant to quash the growth of Communism. That is eerily prescient for how things would be ten years — oh, and (astonishing) even fifty years — later.
Pyle was very earnest and I had suffered from his lectures on the Far East, which he had known for as many months as I had years. Democracy was another subject of his — he had pronounced and aggravating views on what the United States was doing for the world.
Fowler doesn’t want to pick a side in the conflict, but Pyle honor-bound one day comes to tell Fowler that he has fallen in love with Phuong and will begin to pursue her hand (she and Fowler aren’t married, after all). It’s not just that he has fallen in love with Phuong; he has fallen in love with saving her, thinking he’s protecting her interests. Vietnam, apparently, wasn’t a good place for a virtuous woman to transition into adulthood. Fowler and Pyle have several conversations about Phuong, some amusing, all interesting (showing that the book has more to it than political intrigue — Greene’s got excellent control, style, and timing):
Suddenly I couldn’t bear his boyishness any more. I said, “I don’t care for her interests. You can have her interests. I only want her body. I want her in bed with me. I’d rather ruin her and sleep with her than, than . . . look after her damned interests.”
He said, “Oh,” in a weak voice, in the dark.
I went on, “If it’s only her interests you care about, for God’s sake leave Phuong alone. Like any other woman she’d rather have a good . . .” The clash of a mortar saved Boston ears from the Anglo-Saxon word.
A lot younger, a lot wealthier, with no wifely baggage at home, Fowler knows Pyle has a strong chance of winning Phuong from him. After all, Fowler doesn’t delude himself into thinking Phuong loves him any more than he can provide for her needs, which he increasingly can’t.
Fowler’s weery, self-reflective tone smoothly goes from his relationship with Pyle to the ugliness of the war. Greene surprised me here. The Tenth Man was ironic, but sometimes the tone was a bit melodramatic and sentimental, particularly at the resolution. I had, with no real basis, pegged Greene as a bit of a melodramatic author. Not here. His depictions of the war and the dead are properly disturbing.
Thankfully, Greene doesn’t lapse into simple, didactic moralism to attempt to resolve this conflict or any other conflict that is going on, despite the clearly allegorical tale. On the contrary, Greene recognizes the inherent complexity and irrationality in each conflict he describes, on a global, local, and personal level. After finishing the book I watched the trailer for Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film adaptation and slapped my head and spit in spite when in just a few of the sound bites the characters reduced the layers of meaning in Fowler’s and Pyle’s relationship with Phuong and with Vietnam down to just a few simple quote. Greene, thankfully, doesn’t go so far as that, leaving the story to work a wonderful, but not a simply reducible, analogy for the involvement of Europe and America in Indo-China during this period. It made me reflect — quietly.