The Quiet American by Graham Greene6 April 2008
Graham Greene is one of those authors whose works always hover somewhere in the background of my ‘to-read’ list but very seldom end up in my hands. Fortunately, a friend of mine had a copy of this particular book, and lent it to me after I’d expressed an interest in reading it. I had some good advice and feedback on this review from another friend — the third paragraph owes a good deal to her questions to me, and I’m quite grateful for the consideration.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
In the early 1950s, French colonial military forces are bogged down in an increasingly brutal war for control of French Indochina, and the possibility of a Viet Minh victory has begun to attract the attention of certain sectors of the American military and political establishment. But for Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged British journalist who has been living in Vietnam and reporting on the fighting between the Vietminh and the French, the grander political games are of relatively little interest. Fowler is mostly concerned with his ability to live as comfortable a life as possible in Saigon, filing the occasional piece of copy for his newspaper but preferring to spend his time smoking opium and enjoying the company of Phuong, the young Vietnamese woman he has taken as a lover. Fowler has no real ambitions (except to avoid being sent back to England and to the wife who will not give him the divorce he wants) and is more than content to take no part in the Indochina conflict, but his intentions go abruptly awry when he makes the acquaintance of Alden Pyle, a young Harvard-educated American of New England stock who arrives in Saigon as part of an American aid mission. Pyle, in contrast to many of his fellow countrymen in Saigon, is a ‘quiet American’: soft-spoken, idealistic, and earnestly interested in finding a solution to the war. He is convinced that a ‘Third Force’ will be able to form a legitimate government in Vietnam, routing both the colonial power and the left-leaning nationalists. Yet Fowler soon begins to suspect that Pyle’s presence in Vietnam has a sinister component to it, and his quasi-friendship with Pyle becomes all the more complicated when Phuong leaves him, seduced by the quiet American’s promise to marry her and take her back to America. As the violence in Saigon continues to escalate, Fowler begins to rethink his personal policy of not getting involved in the Indochina conflict — although he himself would have to admit that his motivations, in this instance, may have less than altruistic intentions.
The underlying plot of The Quiet American is drawn from Graham Greene’s experiences as a reporter in Saigon during the early 1950s and to a lesser extent on his time as a British intelligence agent in Sierra Leone in the 1940s. Upon publication, the book’s unflattering depiction of the Americans and American intervention in the early stages of the Vietnam conflict prompted some reviewers to denounce Greene as anti-American and to claim that he had used the character of Thomas Fowler as a mouthpiece for his own leftist sympathies. Though one might suspect that Greene took a bit of pleasure in using Fowler to skewer some of the more egregious behaviours and attitudes he had observed during his time in Saigon, a closer reading of the text suggests that Greene found Fowler an equally unsympathetic character, one among the many unsympathetic characters in the novel. The one character who even seems to come out as a mildly respectable figure is a very minor character: Phuong’s older sister, who clearly disapproves of both Fowler and Pyle as suitable partners but who sees in them a chance to provide her little sister with stability and protection, both of which are in short supply in war-torn Vietnam. Fowler is not necessarily more observant or ‘correct’ in his thinking than any of the other characters, though his standing as both the narrator and as a foil for Pyle’s radically different beliefs does give him a more authoritative (if not necessarily authorial) voice.
Most analyis of The Quiet American tends to focus on the broader moral questions related to Cold War politics, but other questions raised by the book deserve equal consideration. In particular, the character of Phuong raises several complicated points about gender issues and Orientalism, both topics that deserve greater consideration. The trouble with considering these issues is the fact that they are both so blatant, unsubtle almost to the point of caricature, that looking deeper into them is somehow made that much more difficult. One attempt to simplify the gender issues, for instance, would say that the women of The Quiet American seem to represent marked extremes of the virgin-whore spectrum, with Fowler’s wife and Phuong at opposite ends. Yet the very obviousness of the extent to which Phuong is objectified by both Fowler and Pyle (in different ways, but with the same result) and even by Phuong’s own sister makes it difficult to tell, I think, the extent to which it’s been done deliberately. Any thoughts on Orientalism would have to take into account the Chinese and other Vietnamese characters in the book, but again Phuong dominates this theme — as in Fowler’s description of how ‘[taking] an Annamite to bed with you is like taking a bird: they twitter and sing on your pillow‘. Attempting to extract Greene’s message on Orientalism and gender issues is further complicated by the Greene-as-Fowler question, and the problem of separating Fowler’s voice from Greene’s. Awareness may be a poor substitute for analysis, but on these issues awareness is at least likely to provide some semi-satisfactory answers.
In both a Cold War and post-Cold War context, The Quiet American tends to be brought up in connection with the idea of American naïveté regarding foreign affairs, a blend of good intentions and ignorance that happens to prove particularly lethal over the course of the book. Yet Greene’s novel also brings up the question of individual moral choices and the difficulties that accompany a professed belief in remaining uninvolved in a conflict. The Quiet American isn’t one of Greene’s ‘Catholic novels’ (which include The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair), but those who simply treat it as a piece of topical political commentary and downplay everything else sadly ignore the complex moral questions that provide much of the driving force of the story.