The quiet American

by Graham Greene

Paperback, 2002


Checked out
Due Aug 19, 2021


New York : Penguin Books, 2002.


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.

Media reviews

Easily, with long-practiced and even astonishing skill, speaking with the voice of a British reporter who is forced, despite himself, toward political action and commitment, Greene tells a complex but compelling story of intrigue and counter-intrigue, bombing and murder. Into it is mixed the rivalry of two white men for a Vietnamese girl. These elements are all subordinate to the political thesis which they dramatize and which is stated baldly and explicitly throughout the book.
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There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American

User reviews

LibraryThing member browner56
When does the pursuit of a noble cause become a blind, damaging obsession? Is it really possible to stay uninvolved and not take sides in life? Do we always understand and accept the motives for our most significant actions? Such are the questions that shape this brief and prophetic novel. “The Quiet American” is at once a murder mystery, the story of an ill-fated love triangle, and an engaging political treatise. It is an altogether remarkable book.

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.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
The central, and most interesting, character of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" isn't Alden Pyle, the young Bostonian who gives this novel it's name. I'd argue that Greene gave us a better example of the "American type" in "The Comedians," anyway. The real center of this story is Thomas Fowler, the cynical, war-weary, and increasingly lonely British war correspondent who serves as this novel's narrator. He's a study in alienation, cut off from his culture, his better self, and, increasingly, the people he knows in wartime Saigon. Fowler seems eager enough to relate his experience to the reader, but, like, say, Meursault, who narrates Camus's "The Plauge," he's too reserved, and perhaps too stereotypically male, to freely impart the true depth of his feelings. Anyhow, Greene, who referred to himself as a "film man," is too plainspoken and direct a writer to want to delve too deeply into his characters' consciousnesses. It's impressive, then, just how much feeling he packs into this brief, rather spartan novel. Every element of Fowler's existence seems to speak to his own private anguish or illustrate something important about the decadent, dangerous twilight of French-controlled Vietnam. Greene wastes neither time nor space here, but "The Quiet American" portrays both the emotional toll of long-term solitude and the colonial experience, albeit largely from the point of view of the colonialist, as accurately as anything I've ever read.

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.
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LibraryThing member Smiler69
Thomas Fowler is a middle-aged British journalist who has been living in Saigon for a number of years to report on the French Indochina War. He's left behind a wife in England from whom he's been separated for a long time, though she refuses him a divorce on religious grounds. This shouldn't be a problem for his current lover, twenty-year-old Phuong, who doesn't ask for anything and is content to live with Fowler and prepare his opium pipes, but Phuong's older sister wants her to get married to secure her future. Then a young idealistic American called Alden Pyle appears on the scene, makes friends with Fowler, and also falls in love with Phuong and decides to ask her in marriage. When the novel opens, Pyle has been found murdered, and Fowler proceeds to recount his relationship with the young man and their conflicts, both political and personal, which have somehow led to the young man's death. I can't say I was taken with this novel. It's tone was very serious and it had quite a plodding pace. The love story, such as it was, was obviously on the forefront of the narrator's mind, but the real story was about the war and the conflict between the French colonists, the communists who wanted to oust them, and the foreigners who were either there to report the war and bent on not getting involved, like Fowler, or on the contrary, invested in bringing about change according to their own agenda, like Pyle. My own disinterest in politics is to blame for my lack of appreciation here, as I can objectively say it's a very good novel, but it didn't quite satisfy this reader.

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."
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LibraryThing member weird_O
Graham Greene was such a great story-teller. [The Quiet American] is a short novel, set in Saigon in the early 1950s, depicting the death of an idealistic young American attached to the U.S. Embassy. The narrator is Thomas Fowler, a veteran British journalist who has been covering the First Indochina War. Fowler is living with a 20-year-old Vietnamese former dance-hall girl named Phuong. He'd marry the girl if his wife back in England would grant him a divorce (but she won't).

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.
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LibraryThing member ElenaDanielson
I should have read "The Quiet American" decades ago, in part because I lived through the anti-Vietnam War protests at Berkeley. And even more so, because I worked in Stanford's Hoover Archives with the Lansdale papers. Mostly I regret reading books I "should" read. While I'm ambivalent about Graham Greene himself, his troubling book should have been more attentively studied when it came out in 1955, a clear warning. Greene's narrator Thomas Fowler is treacherously loutish, misogynistic, anti-American, and worst of all unappetizing. Yet: This book was chillingly prescient back then in 1955, clearly so now that the story has played itself out. The craftsmanship of the plot and the seemingly plain language make the truth compelling and interesting to read. I've tried to read lots of true stories, just couldn't bear the banality, but Graham Greene knows how to weave a tale. Stories sometimes entertain and sometimes also contain truth. Some writers have a periscope and can see what's really going on above the waves, and in this book Greene's periscope is functioning perfectly. The roots of the American tragedy in Vietnam are plainly revealed, even before it all happened. Like Tolstoy's "War and Peace," this book is equally about the tragedy of war and the mystery of marriage. Sounds weird but he makes it work. There is a Madama Butterfly thing going on. Not my favorite part of the book.

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.
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LibraryThing member drewjameson
A gorgeously written novel that can be nearly any type you choose to read it as: an espionage thriller, a satire of two countries naively attempting to impose their wills on a country they both choose not to understand (Fowler as Britain cynically attempts to remain objective while Pyle, the apparently ineffectual American tries to save Phuong and Vietnam from herself), a war novel infinitely more personal and thoughtful than any by Hemingway, or a text that directly addresses language and how it shapes and colors the meaning we attempt to express through it. It can be anything except what it first appears to be: a love story. Phuong is as much an object as she is a mystery to both men, and this is integral to reading the novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member Hagelstein
Fowler is a cynical British journalist covering the war in 1950s Indo-China, pre-Vietnam. He somewhat reluctantly befriends Pyle, an idealistic young American Economic Attaché with “special duties.”
“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.
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LibraryThing member theonearmedcrab
Next is Graham Greene’s classic novel “The Quiet American”, published in 1955, and written mostly in Saigon during the Vietnamese – Vietming – fight for independence from the French. Its description of the war is vivid, and eerily similar to what Americans described 10-20-30 years later, and its comments on American involvement are eerily predictive.… (more)
LibraryThing member nohablo
SO, SO, SO ENTHUSIASTICALLY GOOD verging on the cusp of Great. Greene has a way of crystallizing a huge typhoon of a colonial conflict into the small, petty, whole-hearted machinations of a small trio. He's an exquisitely careful writer who whittles away, perfecting all the small gradations of hurt and cruelty. Granted, the story can feel a touch musty but Greene manages to make you feel a big, gushy, raw pulsating empathy for every single character. That's not easy.

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!
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LibraryThing member yooperprof
I didn't like this as much as my other excursions into "Greene-land." It's certainly a prescient novel, about Vietnam and the folly of American meddling in the world, published in 1955 (!). This was long before the adventures of the CIA and other US interventionists were fully known - in places like Guatemala and Iran and Congo. But "Quiet" wants to be more than just a political tract; Greene also wants it to be a character study AND a faith novel, like "The Power and the Glory." There's too much going on in only 180 pages, and Greene has too many axes to grind to get them all sharp. Moreover, the eponymous character is too much of a straw man to be credible; Graham Greene wants so badly to make his point about the wrong-ness of the United States that he doesn't bother to flesh Pyle out. I liked the movie better!… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
Provides some insight into how America would become tragically involved in Vietnam. When we look in the mirror that Greene provides us, we see the senselessness of trying to project our own ideas about governance on another country.
LibraryThing member japaul22
I know this book is liked by many around here, but I just didn't enjoy it. It is a look at Vietnam in the 1950s, with different factions competing for political power and plenty of foreign journalists around to muddy the waters. The book is told from Fowler's point of view, a British journalist. While exploring the war and politics, there is also a central story of Fowler and Pyle's (an youthful, naive American) competition for a young Vietnamese girl, Phuong. We find out at the beginning that Pyle has been murdered and Fowler's memories gradually uncover his story.

While I appreciated how politics and anti-war philosophy were woven together with a personal story, I just really didn't like the characters and hated the whole love triangle aspect. I found Pyle unbelievable and one-dimensional and Phuong, as well, had no personality and seemed like a stereotype.

To be fair, this was the first audiobook I've listened to where I really hated the reader, Joseph Porter, and that definitely colored my view of the book. I will definitely not listen to another audiobook read by him - he had a horrible natural speaking voice and then he tried to do American accents and French accents and it was just terrible.

There are many readers around here who I respect who have a great liking for this novel, so don't let my experience put you off, but I really can't say I enjoyed this book. I am still willing to try other Graham Greene novels at some point, though.
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LibraryThing member name99
After all I've heard about this, truth is, I was disappointed.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member whirled
This is an intriguing tale centred on the uneasy friendship between cynical British journalist Fowler and Pyle, the quiet American of the title. It is a wonderfully well written and disturbingly prescient comment on foreign meddling in Indochina, and well deserving of its classic status. The two men's competition for Phoung's affections was depressingly of its time though - I rather hoped Phoung would ditch the pair of them and seek out someone who actually took account of what she wanted.… (more)
LibraryThing member zenitsky
Written about the War in Indo-China (Vietnam) before the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The story revolves around two characters: Fowler, an experienced and jaded British journalist and Pyle, a young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon. Pyle's naive political blunders (a metaphor for the rising US influence in the region) devolve into needless bloodshed that ultimately moves the cynical Fowler to action.

I found it to be an interesting read about the second to the last chapter of Western colonialism in Southeast Asia.
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LibraryThing member crashmyparty
It's not often I close a book and have absolutely no idea what to put in my review. I thought this novel was pretty close to brilliant, but I feel like - I don't know - there's more to this than I even understand. I know what happened and I could tell you, but as to the deeper intellectual issues, I think it will take me longer to work through. A re-read will be in order in the future, most definitely, but for enjoyment as well as for understanding.

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.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
After rereading this for the first time in over 30 years, I was struck by how much of the book is about love. When I read this back in my college days, I focused on the political and social commentary about colonialism and war; ever since, that is how I have thought of this book. But although the political struggle of the Vietminh against the French & Pyle's political ideals play an important part in the book, they are really just the background to the struggle between Fowler & Pyle over Phuong.

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!
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LibraryThing member Sean191
I think this is Graham Green's best-known work, but it took me a while to get to it. I've read five other novels by him prior to The Quiet American and he continues to astound. The pacing, the dialogue between characters, everything is just done so expertly. The last chapter upped the ante so much. Then the last few pages ramped things up more. The last sentence literally made my eyes widen and my jaw drop ever so slightly. Greene is one of the most consistent writers at this high of a level.… (more)
LibraryThing member Crazymamie
"I stopped our Trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phoung, 'Go inside and find a table. I had better look after Pyle.' That was my first instinct - to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm."

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.
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LibraryThing member Lord_Boris
This was a book we read at school and which I considered at the time to be pretty boring. On reflection, there is little in it for a 15 year old me to identify with or relate to. Further, not much actually physically happens. Thirty years later I get a lot more from it.

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.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
Fun to re-read after many years, and before the memory of the Michael Caine movie slowly slips totally away.
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
LibraryThing member vguy
Restores faith in the value of reading the modern classics. Great story, enigmatic characters, - even the blank screen Vietnamese mistress is appropriately so; she's a servant to his needs not a companion. The book is very much about ex-pats: hey don't really enter or even contact the local culture. The Asian atmosphere is as authentic as I am able to judge. The front-line fear and the horror of street terrorism is very up-to the minute. The insight into US foreign policy is extraordinary given that the book was written before full US engagement in Vietnam: the mix of naive do-goodery with cynical violence and ignorance of local affairs anticipates Iraq Afghanistan and the latest headlines. The Roman Catholic aspect is kept quietly off-stage (the wife back in Blighty) which is how I prefer it. And the prose is clean and trenchant without affectation. Greene used to seem rather middle brow middle of the road compared to the bold modernists, but i now find him a clear contender for best British novelist of the 20th century.
Audio book finely read by Simon Cadell, an ancient cassette set I found when clearing my cupboards
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LibraryThing member PaulCranswick
From the top rank of Greene's oeuvre. Marginally my favourite in a Vietnam teetering on the brink in the dying days of French rule. Presages the disaster to come in his typically irascible style.
LibraryThing member untraveller
Second time to read; read in Hanoi. Interesting read, especially after reading the Ravens. How most of us do regret some of the decisions we make in life! The time of the French occupation was undoubtedly more interesting than today's Vietnam, although the Vietnamese would not say so, I'm sure. Their communistic society is trending capitalistic, backpacking millennials are everywhere, and tourism is booming. Not the recipe for an interesting place to visit. Greene's Vietnam had a mixture of the romantic, the dangerous, and the exotic. He brings it all together well....… (more)
LibraryThing member flashflood42
Greene in 1953 propheticizes what will happen in Vietnam in the 60's and 70's and even in Iraq today where the American imposes his beliefs on another culture causing danger and destruction. The jaded, detached narrator, himself a product of dying British colonialism, ultimately must engage to stop the carnage that the American Pyle has wrought -- through his meddling in politics and facilitating bombing-- both to the Vietnam people and to the narrator. The price tag for Fowler is guilt.… (more)



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