The Quiet American – by Graham Greene, 1955

 Bantam paperback, 1955

The Quiet American serves up a classic love triangle amid political treachery in Saigon. A jaded English journalist and a youthful American economic aid officer fall in love with the same woman, the willowy, amber-skinned Phuong, an embodiment of the eternal beauty and mystery of Vietnam.

It’s also a political novel, spiked with philosophical and ideological dilemma. Should men of conscience stand up to America’s intervention alongside France in opposition to Vietnam’s struggle for self-rule? Should America use its massive might to instill wide-eyed Western idealism and liberal individualism in a country that’s never known democracy? In the short term, should Washington support the tactics of torture and terrorism employed by  murderous Vietnamese allies? In the long term, is it better to enter a prolonged war that will cause unimaginable suffering, or allow Vietnamese nationalists to establish a Communist regime?

Thomas Fowler, the story’s narrator, is a red-faced, middle-aged reporter who finds refuge in his quiet romance, his opium pipes and his sense of dégagé, being uninvolved. Only when Fowler discovers that an earnest young American has stolen away his mistress  does he re-engage in events. Alden Pyle’s personality and C.I.A.-scented activism stoke Fowler’s hatred of Americans in Southeast Asia. He says, “I was tired of the whole pack of them, with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals, and their too-wide cars and their not quite latest guns,” he says. At another point he haughtily derides “the poverty of American literature, the scandals of American politics (and) the beastliness of American children.”

Fowler disses Pyle for his idealism and lack of real-world experience: “He was young and silly and ignorant and he got involved.” He mocks Pyle’s typical American preoccupation with “mental ideas,” including “-isms and -ocracies.” Adding fuel to the fire, Fowler learns that Pyle has thrown in his lot, and America’s, with a despotic general who leads a Third Force against both the beleaguered French and the advancing Communists. He sees Pyle as complicit in a terrorist bombing that kills and cripples civilians in the square opposite the Continental Hotel. Fowler is ruthless yet he’s shocked when Pyle defends the murder of women and children as a tool to effect positive political change. Worse yet, the reporter susses out that Pyle is importing plastic of the sort terrorists can mold into bicycle bombs.

Alden Pyle is a fine example of an American whose innocence and good intentions bring tragic consequences. Greene has granted the quiet American a few good qualities. He is Boston-bred and Harvard-educated, exceedingly polite and highly scrupled; he doesn’t drink, or smoke opium, and he has the decency to tell Fowler face-to-face that he plans to marry Phuong. In fact, he earnestly asks Fowler to translate his troth. And it is Pyle who gallantly risks his own life to save Fowler from dying under fire in a rice paddy. Pyle says he did it for Phuong. Fowler retorts that he would not do the same for Pyle, and apparently he means it.

In what could be an allegory for the way Western powers regard Vietnam, Phuong’s pair of suitors discuss Love Saigon Style. Pyle tells Fowler that Phuong can’t possibly love him because he lies to her. Fowler admits he lies because he wants to keep her. The Englishman tells his American adversary: “Love’s a Western word. We use it for sentimental reasons or to cover up an obsession with one woman.” Asians are too practical to suffer from obsessions, he asserts. Pyle says he wants to give Phuong “a decent life” in America, which Fowler paints as a deep freezer, a car of her own, the latest model TV and supermarkets that sell celery wrapped in cellophane. Fowler says his live-in lover is quite capable of deciding for herself. “She’s tougher than you’ll ever be,” he says. “She can survive a dozen of us.”

Greene’s novel is positively brilliant with conversation that cuts like a diamond. If you read only one of the books on the Ugly American bookshelf, read this one.

 

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