Review – The Quiet American by Graham Greene

It has been nearly 29 years since Graham Greene, an English novelist who’s considered one of the greatest in the 20th century, had passed away in Vevey, Switzerland. A man who lived a life without inertia, Greene’s experiences across the world ranged far. He was a sub-editor for The Times, a film critic for The Spectator, and other positions within journalism that brought him to troubled nations such as Liberia, Mexico, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam. Throughout these adventures did he witness the horrors that the human psyche can either suffer from or produce. For Greene was this a bitter reality to him, especially during his visit to Mexico in 1938 where he witnessed religious persecution under the anticlerical rule of the Tabasco province’s governor, Tomás Garrido Canabal. Greene, himself recieved into Catholicism in 1926, used this event as the inspiration for his 1940 novel The Power and the Glory.

But this wasn’t the only novel that was based on Greene’s personal experience of the injustices of the world. His time in Sierra Leone where he worked as an intelligence officer for the Foreign Office produced his 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter, his 1951 novel The End of the Affair being based on a affair he enjoyed during and after the Blitz of World War II. Despite the promiscious nature of the latter (along with the supposed seduction of his psychiatrist’s wife in his teenage years), these works are considered as being part of his ‘Catholic novels’. His osscilating flirtations with God as a devote Catholic and later as a self-proclaimed ‘Catholic agnostic’ was nevertheless the religion “to measure” his “evil against”.

But even in his novels which lacked the narrative of a Catholic writer (a title he objected to being referred to as) can we see this struggle with evil when faced directly with it, an evil which is seen throughout and one that trascends the mere individual to a greater level that affects global society. Even when Greene had already mastered delienating this intricate subject, he improved on it by making it prophetic.

This is what his 1955 novel The Quiet American had achieved when it critically resurfaced after the United States’s intervention in Vietnam between 1965-1975. Based on Greene’s time as a war correspondent for The Times during the Indochina War between French forces and local Communist insurgents, The Quiet American is a novel that elegantly encompasses several issues that confronts both individuals and nations alike. It is largely an analogy to the contemporary issue of its time that was dominated by the decolonisation process, the concomitant decline of the British and French empires, and the emergence of American exceptionalism. It’s a fictional representation of the status quo of post-war world affairs.

But the genius of Greene’s storytelling was to personify the geopolitical situation through its three main characters and their love triangle. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist and the book’s narrator, is a jaded and cynical figure who reflects the colonial era’s halcyon days being long over, now wishing for no more responsibility for the world’s events. Fowler only wishes to report on them with no opinions just so that he can get on with life. It is here where he is juxtaposed with Alden Pyle, a young, naive, ‘quiet’ American who works as a CIA officer under the cover of an Economic Attache; heavily influenced by the writings of a fictional foreign policy theorist called York Harding. The epitome of covert American interventionism and idealism, Pyle’s cause is one that Greene depicts as being one in vain; its efforts for legitimacy being no different from the colonial empires. The one thing both desire however is Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman who is described as “the most beautiful girl in Saigon”. Her innocence and need for security serves as a allegory for wartime Indochina; Fowler as the older partner who sees Phuong as the only thing that continues his will to exist, with Pyle being the newcomer who desires to steal Phuong away from Fowler.

The use of such analogies to reflect the characters’ desires, assumptions, and predicaments is clear throughout Fowler’s narration, especially this one example of his discussions with Pyle about love and Phuong:

Pyle: “But she loves you, doesn’t she?”

Fowler: “Not like that. It isn’t in their nature. You’ll find that out. It’s a cliche to call them children – but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them – they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like – just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, Pyle, it’s very secure – she won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.”

But when Fowler’s relative comfort of his life with Phuong is threatened by Pyle’s intrusion, Fowler must make the decision to choose a side – despite his supposed impartiality. It is here where Fowler contradicts his own values. Pyle, despite his strong ideological optimism that is opposite to Fowler’s cynicism, suffers from this same quagmire, having killed civilians in the name of ‘democracy’. Their mutual desire for Phuong is equal to their own hypocrisy.

But where both Fowler and Pyle can simply walk away from this predicament, others such as Phuong can’t. A Vietnamese bomber pilot for the French called Captain Trouin summarises this best in a conversation with Fowler:

Trouin: “The baker – I was very fond of the baker when I was a child – is running away down there in the flames I’ve thrown. The men of Vichy did not bomb their own country. I felt worse than them.”

…..

Fowler: “That’s why I won’t be involved.”

Trouin: “It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and then we cannot get out. War and Love – they have always been compared.”

Even when the Fowlers and Pyles of the world can evacuate from the worst situations do they still choose to remain there, largely because they feel compelled to fulfil a purpose in life. The ironic expense that comes with this is that it effects individual lives further and becomes a form of ideological collateral. It goes to show that the morals and contradictions that occured in 1950s French Indochina and its auguring of the American failure in Vietnam is omnipresent. It is just as relevant now as it was then for foreshadowing the dangers of political zealotry and the difficult decisions it can pose. With the world being much smaller than it was seventy years ago, our moral values and the decisions that derive from them can have even greater implications than what we may realise.

Where blind idealism and political postulation is ever more frequent – largely due to the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the excessive sensationalisation of ISIS, Brexit and Trump, and debates over climate change and trade wars – the contradictions that often infect society is now becoming more visible. Whilst The Quiet American was written in a very different era compared to today, the moral lessons it provides – along with the inherent hypocrisy of human nature it showcases – are still just as valuable.

Featured image credit: “23 Những sự kiện như thế này Graham Greene miêu tả trong Người Mỹ trầm lặng xuất bản năm 1955” by Tommy Japan 79 is licensed under CC BY 2.0