The Quiet American is an appealing choice. It is 180 pages (not too demanding for a busy week) and the Battle library’s new showcase book (I am sucker for new books). Having heard about Graham Greene for so long, I am tempted to read his work.
The novel is set during the First Indochina war, the French colonial war. The story is about Thomas Fowler, a British foreign correspondent in Vietnam, and Alden Pyle, a wide-eyed Harvard American diplomat with a mission sent to promote democracy through mysterious “Third Force” in Indo-China. Young Pyle sees experienced Fowler as a mentor and a best friend, except there is one thing that came in between them, Phuong, a Vietnamese girl who seeks security and marriage (and leaves Fowler for the same reason). She is viewed by Fowler as a companion to be taken for granted and by Pyle as a delicate flower to be protected. Pyle fell in love with Phuong and asked Fowler for her hand in marriage. Pyle valiantly saves Fowler’s life one day, when caught in the night of a curfew. As Pyle naive optimism cause bloodshed, Fowler finds it hard to stand aside and watch. Should he take sides when he has not before, should he stand and watch and do nothing? But even if he intervenes he wonders if it is for the sake of politics / humanity or for love?
There is an anti-colonial theme in the story, and it is reflected in the following conversation Fowler had with Pyle while out in the curfew.
‘They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.’ Pyle said.
‘Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?’
‘You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?’
‘Oh no,’ Fowler said, ‘We’ve brought them up in our ideas. We’ve taught them dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get out throats cut. We deserve to have them cut.’
Although Pyle is politically motivated in a potentially harmful way, he is a very endearing character. He is innocent, he believes in preserving honour, he honours friendship, he risks his own life to save another, and he believes in true love.
‘Love is a western word’ I said. ‘We use it for sentimental reasons or to cover up an obsession with one woman. These (the Vietnamese) don’t suffer from obsession, Pyle.’ – Fowler
Ethical ambivalence is built into the very foundation of this novel. Complexity of human relationships is carved into profound dialogues. Spot-on observation of the “Asiatics”. As Greene said “Human nature is not black or white. It’s black or grey” and that “When we are not sure, we are alive.”
I am amazed at how a novel published in 1955 feels so current and I have to constantly pinch myself that Graham Greene is talking about a war that is set in the 1950’s, not even as recent as the better known Vietnam war in the 1970’s. According to critics, in recent years there have been frequent parallels drawn between Greene’s condemnation of what he saw as America’s ignorant, high-handed and idealistic involvement in the Vietnam War and the course of the War in Iraq.
I hope to God you know what you are doing here. Oh, I know your motives are good , they always are.. I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings. And that applies to your country too, Pyle.
The cities names in Vietnam remind me of places I have been in Vietnam. I remember the old quarters and Ho Kiam lake in Hanoi. The junk trip at the sea in Ha Long Bay. A visit to the Viet Cong’s hideaway underground tunnel network and bomb shell craters in Cuchi village, Saigon. The chaotic town of Cholon, famed for Chinese inhabitants. The market, river and the city of Saigon. The Ao Dai (a long blouse with slit on the sides, wore with long trousers) wore by the Vietnamese women, of which I tailor-made overnight one for myself. Though fiction, it mentions and involves actual people and groups, such as the Vietminh and General Trinh Minh The. The book contains a detailed description of the syncretic Cao Dai religion of Tay Ninh province. I suspected Graham Greene had visited Malaya as well, with his spot-on description of the native, on Pahang and Chinese Coolies.
The experience was a roller coaster ride for me. I empathise with Fowler’s disengagement with the war that he reports, his aspiration to be neutral and uninvolved; I am moved by Pyle’s innocent love to Phuong; I cringed at the horror of the war with trenches filled with dead bodies; I followed with urgency in Fowler and Pyle’s escape from the pursuit of the rebels; I condemned the bombing, I read with trepidation of Pyle’s last hour, and I savour the bitter sweet ending of the book.
Sigh! What a book! I will be reading more of Graham Greene and re-read The Quiet American again.
This Vintage Classic edition includes an introduction from Zadie Smith. The Quiet American was adapted into films in 1958 and most recently in 2002 by Miramax, starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser and earning the former a Best Actor nomination.
Henry Graham Greene (Orders of merit OM) (2 October 1904 – 3 April 1991) was an English author, playwright and literary critic. His works explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Greene was notable for his ability to combine serious literary acclaim with widespread popularity.
What I like most about the book: The depth, the ambiguity and moral message of the story. A well carved story with a good mix of crime fiction, politics, war and romance.
What I like least about the book: that it is too short at 180 pages?