Friday, November 19, 2010

373. The Quiet American – Graham Greene

History: This book was first published in Great Britain in 1955. The book draws on Greene's experiences as a SIS agent spying for Britain in World War II in Sierra Leone in the early 1940s and on winters spent from 1951 to 1954 in Saigon reporting on the French colonial war for The Times and Le Figaro. 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 it.
After its publication in the U.S. in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticized by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people.
Plot: Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for over two years. He meets a young American idealist named Alden Pyle, who lives his life and forms his opinions based on the books written by York Harding, whom Pyle has met twice in his life. Harding's theory is that neither Communism nor colonialism are the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force," usually a combination of traditions, works best. Pyle is thoughtful and soft-spoken; Fowler finds him naïve.
The two men meet accidentally at the Continental, a popular Saigon hotel. Pyle dances with Fowler's live-in lover, Phuong. Only twenty years old, Phuong is considered the most beautiful girl in Saigon. Her sister's goal in life is to marry Phuong off to a rich American; she does not like Fowler because he is married. Fowler and Pyle meet again at the Continental. Some vulgar Americans and British who have been drinking too much go off to the House of Five Hundred Women. Pyle goes with them, but Fowler rescues him. Later that night Pyle seems protective of Phuong.
Fowler goes to the city of Phat Diem to cover a battle there. Pyle travels there to tell him that he has been in love with Phuong since the first night he saw her, and that he wants to marry her. They make a toast to nothing and Pyle leaves the next day. Fowler gets a letter from Pyle thanking him for being so nice about Phuong. The letter is annoying because of Pyle's complete confidence that Phuong will choose to marry him. Meanwhile, Fowler's editor wants him to transfer back to England.
Pyle comes to Fowler's place and they ask her to choose between them. She chooses Fowler, her lover of two years. She does not know that he is up for a transfer. Fowler writes his wife to ask for a divorce in front of Phuong.
Fowler and Pyle meet again in a war zone. They end up captive in a tower, and spend an extraordinary night talking about everything from sex to God. As they escape, Pyle saves Fowler's life. Fowler goes back to Saigon where he lies to Phuong that his wife will divorce him. Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong moves in with Pyle. After receiving a letter from Fowler, his editor decides that he can stay in Indo-China for at least another year. Fowler investigates Pyle's activities more closely and finds out that Pyle is importing military supplies into Vietnam from the United States. Fowler goes into the war zone and does some serious reporting.
When Fowler returns to Saigon, he goes to Pyle's office to confront him but Pyle is out. Pyle comes over later for drinks and they talk about his upcoming marriage to Phuong. Later that week there is a terrible explosion and many innocents are killed. Fowler puts the pieces together and realizes that Pyle is behind the bombing. Fowler decides that Pyle must be eliminated. His naive theories and interference are causing innocent people to die. Fowler takes part in a murder plot against Pyle. Although the police believe that Fowler is involved, they cannot prove anything. Phuong goes back to Fowler as if nothing had ever happened. In the last chapter Fowler receives a telegram from his wife. She says that she has changed her mind and that she will start divorce proceedings.
Review: This book stands as the definitive, though fictionalized account of the terrible confrontation between moral dissipation and dangerous naivete that plagued Vietnam for so many decades. Though written in 1955, is still a biting indictment of American foreign policy.
Pyle is the stereotypical American terrorist. Pyle doesn't see the harm in doing what he thinks has to be done. When the terrorist bombings he was behind don't kill their intended targets, but instead women and children, yet are blamed on the Communists he considers it a success. The target enemy parade was cancelled, and the standard everyday business of the public square took place. Aside from warning any Americans he saw (and his and Fowler's mistress Phuong) to stay away from the area, Pyle did nothing and didn't even seem to be particularly affected by the deaths of the Vietnamese civilians. Pyle is also a real character, and Fowler, himself, isn't exactly perfect. Fowler doesn't particularly care about Vietnam either and has no particular politics -- and is a bit of a cynical, egotistical jerk. The fact that Fowler isn't a perfect being of light exposing the terrible American makes the novel compelling and makes Greene's points go down a bit easier.
The unreality of war--the emotional distance between military and civilian is captured by this theme of innocence. Actions performed without regard to effect show the lack of understanding. Chilling imagery is conjured by Greene’s sparse writing style. A metaphoric depiction of bodies strewn in a ditch as an irish stew haunts the reader. It represents a hodgepodge cross-section of society who have unwittingly become part of bloodshed. The love relationship between Phuong and the two journalists highlights the impact of French colonialism and the reality that no matter how impartial Fowler seeks to be, neutrality is unattainable where human emotion is involved.
The prescient pessimism that pervades this book is it's most interesting feature. Greene, writing well before we really got involved, seemed to sense that Vietnam was a tar baby that we idealistic Americans would not be able to resist embracing. Pyle's bloody blundering seems to presage the well-intended but disastrous mess that we would make of the entire country in the decades to come.
Opening Line: “After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinet; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.”
Closing Line: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
Quotes: "'...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."
"I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings."
Rating: Very Good.

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