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.


Mylee said...

Graham Greene on The Quiet American:

When my novel was eventually noticed in the New Yorker the reviewer condemned me for accusing my "best friends" (the Americans) of murder since I had attributed to them the responsibility for the great explosion -- far worse than the trivial bicycle bombs -- in the main square of Saigon when many people lost their lives. But what are the facts, of which the reviewer needless to say was ignorant? The Life photographer at the moment of the explosion was so well placed that he was able to take an astonishing and horrifying photograph which showed the body of a trishaw driver still upright after his legs had been blown off. This photograph was reproduced in an American propaganda magazine published in Manila over the title "the work of Ho Chi Minh" although General Thé had promptly and proudly claimed the bomb as his own. Who had supplied the material to a bandit who was fighting French, Caodaists and Communists?

…Perhaps there is more direct rapportage in the The Quiet American than in any other novel I have written. I had determined to employ again the experience I had gained with The End of the Affair in the use of the first person and the time shift, and my choice of a journalist as the "I" seemed to me to justify the use of rapportage. The Press conference is not the only example of direct reporting. I was in the dive bomber (the pilot had broken an order of General de Lattre by taking me) which attacked the Viet Minh post and I was on the patrol of the Foreign Legion paras outside Phat Diem. I still retain the sharp image of the dead child couched in the ditch beside his dead mother. The very neatness of their bullet wounds made their death more disturbing than the indiscriminate massacre in the canals around.

from Ways of Escape, pp.139-140

John Kennedy said...

Thanks for the quote from Greene's reponse to American critics, Mylee. I had not realised the extent to which he was dreaing on his own experiences in the novel.

Thanks too for the picture, which like earlier ones enlivens the asociated comments.

Faye said...

Dear John,
I have just finished re-reading The Quiet American and I am very impressed again with the work. I too was very interested to read the information Mylee provided re Greene,s response to some contemporaneous American critics - it is amazing how many of his direct experiences and judgments re war/conflict relate to significant action/tragic scenes in the story. - Thanks Mylee.

Also i note Greene talks of the book being the closest to "Reportage" of any of his novels. Zadie Smith in the intro to the edition i have just read says of Greene "he is a literary double agent" and again that if Greene's writing is journalism we should think of him "as the greatest journalist that ever was"
She said in this same intro that the "accretion of perfectly rendered, everyday detail makes us feel human, beats away the statisticians, tolls us back to ourselves" I guess it takes a good novelist to know one. And isnt her summary a good reason to read good novelistic writing.

What did I like about the book ? - the seemingly effortless writing, the thriller aspects of the story which were so clever and understated, Fowlers wordly humour , the poignancy of many of the "actual" events as described by Greene, and his prophetic take on the world of conflict .

I think some of the criticism of Greene for being anti-American are understandable on one llevel but if we read Pyle, the "Quiet American", as epitomising single minded misunderstanding of other cultures then it works ok. The message is very strong re colonialism generally and Pyle is a stand in for self centred , single minded acting and thinking .
Equally the actions of the Englishman narrator , Fowler ,can be seen to be judgemental, cynical , interfering and downright callous towards Pyle. I do think he is a straight forward co-conspirator in Pyles death for instance.

Re the criticism of Orientalism and racism I agree there is a tone that shocks at times however in that quote you gave John where Fowler is talking so jingoistically and mysogynistically about Phoung to Pyle , Fowler thinks to himself " But even when I made my speech ...I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was. One never knows about another human being; for all I could tell , she was as scared as the rest of us...."

This quote serves to point about in some small way the strength of the first person delivery of the story - as you mentioned John we are a exposed to Fowlers biases through his own narrative - it is a masterful work in this way.

I enjoyed your summary and comments very mcuh John. I do hope others will be tempted to read this short, clever, always entertaining and inciteful novel by one of the best writers of the 20th century. Thank you.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks for your comments, Faye. I was particularly interested in what you say about Fowler, and I think you rightly emphasise, a bit more than I did, that Greene presents him as in many ways an unattractive figure, whose view are not to be wholeheartedly endorsed, even though he is the narrator.