The Quiet American by Graham Greene (New York: The Penguin Group, 2012. 208pp)
Graham Greene (1904–1991) worked as a journalist and critic, and was later employed by the foreign office. His many books include The Third Man, The Comedians and Travels with My Aunt . He is the subject of an acclaimed three-volume biography by Norman Sherry.
Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was originally published in 1956, and was twice adapted into a film (one which starred Sir Michael Cain, the one I love). In a moment of confession, I read the book in college, quickly became bored with it, and then watched the film instead in order to get some assignments finished. But a few weeks back, I ran into an old student of mine who was reading the book for college, and decided to give the novel another chance. I’m certainly glad I did.
The Third Force
The “quiet American” of note is named Pyle, who goes to Saigon in the early fifties (when the book was originally written) as part of a medical assistance program. The reader, however, begins to notice that Pyle is actually an operative covertly arming a Vietnamese group in order to steer the war in favor of American interests. Pyle is a believer in the theories of York Harding, a foreign policy theorist who believes that the problems in Indochina can be solved by a “third force”. This third force is America. The narrator, Fowler (the french pronounce it fowl-air) is a cynical British correspondent, who thinks of Pyle highly: an honest, sincere man, who believes in the righteousness of his cause thoroughly. To a fault.
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused” (22).
Morality or Innocence
Pyle, however, falls in love with Phoung, the mistress of none other than the narrator, Fowler. He promises her a world of consistency and marriage, and despite that fact, Fowler and Pyle remain close friends. Their friendship is strained, to be certain, but not by their desire for the same woman. Their friendship has trouble because of Pyle’s surreptitious activities.
A bomb in downtown Saigon kills several people, and Fowler traces the bomb back to none other than Pyle. Oddly, Fowler never questions Pyle’s intentions behind the bomb, but begins to worry about his friend. Pyle is somehow unable to admit consequences. He retains integrity, but somehow loses his morality. Pyle is an innocent man, but only because he is the quintessential naïve American.
“I stopped our trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phuong, ‘Go in and find a table. 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 its bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm” (29).
For Graham Greene, I think that Pyle isn’t just a quiet American, but a representation of America itself. Juxtaposed against Fowler, this fact can be quickly seen. Fowler is an older, cynical man; his country has had its colonial period, and already got its fingers in other people’s business. Pyle is new to the game; his country is new and needs to figure things out for itself. His country, in Greene’s worldview, is the brash young man who is determined that he’s always right and going to save the world.
Greene’s assessment of the American character in The Quiet American is accurate for the time, to be certain. America has been, and sometimes continues to be, the most well-intentioned country out there. However, Greene, in his distaste for America, makes the reader wonder whether the American character of Pyle is limited to a specific time in place. Given America’s current posturing on the world stage, it makes me wonder how far America has come. Is America still the young, innocent, well-intentioned twenty-something person? Is America now embittered and cynical like Fowler? Or, is America somewhere in between? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I sincerely recommend you try The Quiet American for the first time, or revisit it like I decided to do.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
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