This novel is a study of New World hope and innocence set in an Old World of violence. The scene is Saigon in the violent years when the French were desperately trying to hold their footing in the Far East. The principal characters are a skeptical British journalist, his attractive Vietnamese mistress, and an eager young American sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission.
Written in the mid-fifties, "The Quiet American" also serves as a sort of tragic foreshadowing of America's own involvement in Vietnam's struggle for independence. Greene's adept at describing both Fowler and Pyle's preconceptions and prejudices about Vietnam and its people, and it's fascinating to see their understanding of the book's setting change as its plot develops. Sadly, the mistakes that drove American policy: the myth of a native, non-communist, American-approved "third force," a naive anti-colonialism, a belief in the universal appeal of democracy, seem already to have been in place a decade before the United States escalated its own war against the Vietminh. Also present, as always, is the sometimes unbridgeable space between East and West and colonizer and colonized, and, of course, the horror of war, which Greene describes with the cool, unflinching eye of a hardened correspondent. Tragic in both the political and the personal sense, "The Quiet American" is highly recommended.
Fowler, a British journalist covering the war in Vietnam in the early 1950s, meets Pyle, the overly naïve and quiet American of the title. Pyle has ostensibly come on an economic development mission, but his real intentions are soon revealed with deadly consequences. Complicating matters is the fact that Pyle has fallen in love with Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful Vietnamese girlfriend, and the struggle between the two men becomes a metaphor for what is happening in the entire country.
Greene was a masterful story-teller and here he evokes brilliantly the mood and political intrigue of Vietnam during the last days of French colonial rule. His prose proved to be remarkably prescient about the history of that nation and the origins of America’s subsequent involvement in the war. More impressively, 50 years after it was written the novel also provides the reader with surprising insights into the challenges we continue to face throughout the world today. This is powerful and suspenseful writing that should not be forgotten.
This tidbit from wikipedia was quite interesting: "The book draws on Greene's experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951-1954. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from the Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”. Greene spent three years writing the novel, which foreshadowed US involvement in Vietnam long before it became publicly known. The book was the initial reason for Graham Greene being under constant surveillance by US intelligence agencies from the 1950s until his death in 1991, according to documents obtained in 2002 by The Guardian newspaper under the US Freedom of Information Act."
Back to Lansdale. Greene was adamant: Alden Pyle is not based on Lansdale. The manuscript was almost completed by 1952 before Lansdale was officially stationed in Vietnam. Yes, but it came out in 1955 when he was officially there. Lansdale saw himself in Pyle. Lansdale was adamant: Pyle had a pet dog, Lansdale was the only GI with a pet dog. Pyle was close to General The. Only Lansdale was close to General The. Pyle advocated a "third way." Lansdale was the major proponent of a "third way." Lansdale was famous in intelligence circles (where Greene was a privileged guest) before 1955 for putting down a communist (Huk) rebellion in the Philippines. And the Americans to have Lansdale repeat his success in the next hotspot, Vietnam. Greene knew it wouldn't work in Vietnam the way it did in the Philippines. But he denied Lansdale's role in his novel. Greene may have lied, but his fiction was true.
By chance, Fowler meets Alden Pyle, ostensibly an embassy aide, recently graduated from college and just arrived from the U.S., eager to find "the third force" and enable it to defeat the warring factions. The concept of "the third force" is the chimera of an academic who's never been to Vietnam, never engaged with conflicting communities, never identified an actual third force. It's just unproven theory. Though Fowler tries, he isn't able to persuade Pyle the idea is nonsense. As time goes on, Fowler sees evidence of Pyle's meddlesome activities, including a bicycle bomb detonated in a busy public square that kills and maims innocents.
To make matters more personal for Fowler, Pyle has proposed to Phuong and won her away.
One evening, Pyle's corpse is fished from a canal. French authorities investigating the death suspect Fowler knows more than he tells them.
The story was inspired by conversations Greene, then a war correspondent, had with an American aid worker (really a CIA agent) in French Indochina in 1951. Greene felt he was being lectured on finding a third force in Vietnam. At the time [The Quiet American] was published (1955) it was widely reviled in the U.S. as anti-American. Sixty years later, it seems quite prescient.
I suppose that this struggle between the two men could be interpreted as a metaphor for the struggle between the Old and New World colonial powers over possession of Vietnam/Asia as I thought years ago. But Fowler's desire to have someone who will be with him when he is aging so he won't die alone comes through as a truth hiding the deeper truth that he loves Phuong. Given Greene's other writings & personal background, one interpretation of this situation could be that Fowler wants the comfort of God's presence but isn't willing to commit to the demands of religion. The different women in Fowler's life could be representing different religions. Fowler's musings about how it is ultimately impossible to truly "know" another person no matter how close you are to them fit in with this interpretation.
Of course, these different views on the book reflect more about me - my interests and concerns have changed over the years. The fact that I can take away a very different message from the one I previous got is just one more sign that Graham Greene is an excellent writer!
The book is, it cannot be denied, remarkably prescient (written 1952) about how America's involvement in Vietnam was going to end in tears.
The problem for me is that the book comes across as a noir, and I've mentioned before how much noir irritates me. The stock character of the foreign reporter who is miserable at home but happy in foreign lands, and who has been jaded to the world around him, may be original to Graham Greene (I don't know) but it's now so common that it's someone I have no interest in, in exactly the same way as I've no interest in the cop with a drinking problem and a screwed up family life.
This is so good. A huge thanks to Bill who recommended it to me. I like Greene's writing. I have now read five by him, and I think this might be my favorite. Set in Vietnam when it was still French Indochina during the first French Indochina War - Greene was a reporter then, and he knows what we writes about. Published in 1955, it is a very prescient novel - I can see why this book was disliked in America at the time, but it rings true, and that alone is heartbreaking. Highly recommended.
Greene had the knack of being in the right place to write books that quickly became topical (Vietnam, Cuba) and in this case, the content still resonates.
Read Jan 2017
It's a heavy novella. There is a lot going on in the 189 pages. I had no idea what to expect, at all, when I opened it (I do that sometimes, without reading the blurb, it's exciting!) and I guess I'm setting myself up to be surprised that way. I feel like I'm making no sense already.
I feel affected by this book and I can't even explain why.
“What is he? O.S.S.?”
“The initial letters are not very important. I think now they are different.”
Pyle is obsessed with two things that Fowler objects to: Supporting a “third force” that could change the course of the war; and Fowler’s lover, Phuong.
They are opposites. Fowler embraces neutrality, but loves and somewhat understands the country – or knows what he doesn’t understand. Pyle stumbles around unknowingly and unaware of danger. Fowler deplores the war. Pyle seems impervious to the damage it causes. Fowler is married back in England and wants Phuong for his own selfish reasons while he is in the country. Pyle wants to marry Phuong and take her to America.
This is a complex, almost perfect novel that explores the morality and consequences of war and love.
Set in Vietnam during the 1950s Indo-China wars, Fowler is an English newspaper correspondent or as he likes to say "reporter". He simply reports the facts and does not take sides or become involved in the war. He is not engagé. He is ageing, cynical and a tad weary of it all. He represents old school European colonialism. Pyle is in effect a secret agent. He is young, naive and by extension dangerous. He represents America. Their conflict is played out on two fronts. At a personal level over Fowler's young Vietnamese lover Phoung, with Pyle earnestly trying to do the right thing by telling Fowler's of his interest in her. At one point he even gets Fowler to translate his intentions directly to Phoung. More tragically, towards the end of the book, Fowler has to become engagé to stop Pyle coldly putting into effect his straight from a book 'third force' ideology.
Considering when it was written, the book is keenly prescient of American involvement in Vietnam, I believe Greene lived there for a number of years. The only other Greene novel I have read so far is Brighton Rock, which is a much earlier novel. That book was good, but this to me is more mature exploration of the human psyche. No doubt I would have preferred Brighton Rock thirty years ago.
I found it to be an interesting read about the second to the last chapter of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia.
Audio book finely read by Simon Cadell, an ancient cassette set I found when clearing my cupboards
PS: We can have a big, brawling, fisticuffs discussion of Greene's characterization of Phuong! I know sometimes it comes off as queasy and greasy but I will argue! Loudly! That Greene knows exaaaactly what he's doing and her quietness and isolation is a sort of protective opaqueness and, what's more, really stems more from his narrator's inability to poke through her defenses. She's impregnable! Not shallow!