The Quiet American by Graham Greene

First published in 1955, The Quiet American is probably one of the best-known and most admired of Greene's many novels. It is based in part on the writer's experiences as a reporter living in Saigon in the early 1950s. The setting is Vietnam during the war between the then colonial power, France, and the Viet Minh, the largely Communist rebel movement seeking to end French rule, in the period shortly before the definitive French defeat iat Dien Bien Phu n 1954. But in another sense the setting could be said to be what has often called 'Greeneland', the exotic, corrupt, decadent world of several of Greene's novels. (The Mexico of The Power and the Glory may spring to mind.) However, to say this is not to imply that there is something formulaic or unconvincing about the novel's portral of Vietnam, which in fact comes vividly to life for readers of the novel. It may be a bit of a cliche, but one does feel almost able to see the colours and smell the smells of the times and places Greene evokes.

There are a few memorable minor characters, such as the Pascal-reading, devoutly Catholic senior police officer Vigot, but this is essentially the story of three people. The narrator, Thomas Fowler, is a middle-aged English reporter, cynical and a bit world weary but happy enough living an unambitious life in Saigon with Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman. Into his world comes Alden Pyle, the 'quiet American' of the title, an idealistic Harvard graduate convinced that he has a mission to help Vietname by fostering a 'Third Force', a democratic nationalism which will provide an alterantive to both colonialims and Communism. Pyle also develops an interest in Phuong, and determines, with temporary success, to win her away from Fowler, with a view to marrying her and taking her to America. Central to the novel is the relationship between the two men, not really a friendship (despite Pyle's earnest efforts) but never really open hostility either. At one stage Pyle saves Fowler's life during a Viet Minh attack, and at the end Fowler appears to be complicit in Pyle's murder, having discovered that Pyle's activities include supplying the wherewithal for a rebel general to mount murderous attacks on Saigon civilians. Fowler decides that however noble Pyle's motives may be, his actions make him a menace that must be removed.

It has been suggested that the three main characters, Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong, to some extent 'represent' Europe, the United States, and Vietnam (or the colonised Third World more generally). There is probably a measure of truth in this, but the two men at least are individualised sufficiently to make them more than stereotypes. Phuong is a more problmatic case, and there have been accustations of both sexism and Orientalism in her portrayal. We do find statements like this comment by Fowler to Pyle on Phuong: 'She'll suffer from childbirth, and hunger and cold and rheumatism, but she will never suffer as we do from thoughts, obsessions - she won't scratch, she'll only decay.' However, it must be kept in mind that though Fowler is the narrator, he is also a character with biases, and that he cannot just be assumed to be presenting the author's views for us to endorse.

When first published the novel was denounced by some as being anti-American. Certainly it suggests that in some respects American idealism of the kind Pyle represents is likely to create greater suffering and mayhem than cynicism and pragmatism. But today it is difficult not to see the novel as more prophetic than ideologically biased. We inevitably read it in the light of the Americans' own war in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and its pictures of the French, fighting what is clearly a losing war while pretending officially that all is well and victory is folllowing victory, is uncannily reminiscent of what we know was to come later, in the years leading up to the ultimate American defeat. (Some might see disturbing parallels to the Afghanistan war of today.)

The Quiet American may not display the most profound characterisation. Its picture of the Caodaist religion (which still claims seven to eight million adherents in Vietnam) may be a comic opera travesty. But is a beautifully written book, vivid, entertaining, thoughtful, and very enjoyable despite the disturbing elements of its subject matter.