Monday, July 28, 2008

The Quiet American

I have recently converted to being a Graham Greene fan as a result of his small but perfectly formed novel, The Quiet American. I had read some Graham Greene before (Our Man in Havana) and was not particularly drawn in by his writing, although I could see that technically it was good. The Quiet American, however, really blew me away.

The Quiet American is narrated by the main character Fowler, a middle-aged English reporter who is living in Vietnam in the 1950s. The events take place during the war against the French colonialists just prior to American involvement in the Vietnam War. The 'quiet American' of the title is young aid-worker Pyle who meets Fowler and promptly falls in love with Fowler's beautiful young Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. Despite their conflict over Phuong, Fowler and Pyle are friends, of a sort. However as Fowler begins to discover more about Pyle's actual work in Vietnam, their friendship becomes untenable and events reach a dramatic climax.

Fowler makes much of his role as a reporter (as opposed to a commentator). He tries to remain detached from the war that he reports on, refusing to take sides. This proves difficult though, especially when Fowler is confronted by horrific violence and bloodshed. For the reader, there are constant questions of how true Fowler's claims of detachment are. How much does losing Phuong colour Fowler's attitude to Pyle? And, since the story is told in hindsight, how much does Fowler's later knowledge of Pyle effect his retelling of the story? By the novel's climactic end, Fowler is forced to takes sides and realises that efforts to remain neutral are futile. He has realised that even doing nothing is in itself an act of choosing sides.

Greene contrasts Fowler's cynicism and detachment from events with Pyle's naive belief that he can understand and change the situation in Vietnam. Pyle stands as a kind of American 'everyman' in the novel. He has wildly optimistic and confident views about America's role in Vietnam and fails to read the subtleties of the situation. Fowler sees Pyle as dangerous in his innocence, describing innocence as a kind of 'insanity'. Pyle is less innocent than he seems but also more dangerous. His simplistic idealism reflects the kind of attitudes that got the US bogged down in an unwinnable war. Pyle is America on a post-WWII high, determined that the rest of the world share the democratic freedoms that they have. This is not in itself such a terrible goal, but is certainly one that can (and did) have devastating consequences.

The Quiet American is so successful partly because it is so relevant to modern conflicts. It foreshadows America's involvement in Vietnam and the quagmire of the war in Iraq. In fact, it stands as a useful metaphor of any nation hoping to blindly march in and show another country how it should live.

Graham Greene doesn't do great female characters and Phuong is very thinly drawn. Perhaps she is meant to represent Vietnam- she is a victim of the manipulation of others but in the end she endures, quiet and unknowable but unchangeable in a way. This is a small criticism though because Greene's real focus is the central relationship in the novel, the friendship between Fowler and Pyle. I find it hard to bring to mind a novel that so accurately depicts a male friendship. Theirs is an incredibly complex relationship. At times it seems that Fowler barely even likes Pyle but the final lines of the book, in which Fowler wishes he could talk to Pyle about what has happened, are incredibly moving.

There is so much in this novel and it is told with such beautiful simplicity. There is something astonishing in a novel that evokes a time and place so strongly and yet is so relevant to contemporary world politics. The Quiet American is a classic, and deservedly so.


Anonymous said...

I agree. It is a great book. Try "The End of the Affair" also.

Anonymous said...

Added to my Bookmooch list. Thanks for the recommendation.

jess said...

Anonymous, I'll definitely be seeking out more Graham Greene soon. Thanks for the recommendation!

Bookchronicle, hope you enjoy it.

3m said...

Glad you liked it!

I've wanted to read another G. Greene novel since 'The End of the Affair.'