The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It takes a special sort of author to open their book with one of the main characters dead. It takes a really good author to have their books main protagonist be a jaded opium addict. It takes an exceptional author to do both. Fortunately, Graham Greene is just that exceptional author. The Quiet American plays on themes that are specific to the dying embers of the British and other European empires and the upsurge in American exceptionalism and expansion of American power in the early and mid 1950’s. It highlights American overconfidence and the world weariness of our European cousins. It also manages to cover much more personal topics. Lost love, jealousy, infidelity, impending obsolescence, and the realization of mortality. Yet none of it feels heavy handed or condescending to either the British protagonists or his American antagonist. In a lesser authors hands any one of these themes would overwhelm. I’ve read a couple of those authors over the years. Even though Greene wrote this story over 60 years ago, the feelings are still fresh.
The Quiet American occurs at a sweet spot in the American experience. Still coming down from the horror and exhilaration of winning World War 2. Stinging slightly from the draw achieved in the Korean War but not yet reeling from the strategic defeat despite the tactical achievements and operational successes of our Vietnam War. A feeling we have since re-lived with Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is a sweet spot as well for both the American allies in the novel, the British and the French. The French feeling the effects of being worn down and exhausted but not yet experiencing the defeat of Dien Bien Phu or of Algeria. The British have already lost a number of its colonies around the world. The UK government is not wanting to place its hope or fate in anyone else’s conflict. Both are feeling displaced by the upstart Americans because of World War 2 but not yet feeling the full slap that will come with the upcoming Suez Crisis.
All three converge in the ending days of French Indochina in what will soon be an independent Vietnam. That country, which would soon gain its independence, is still struggling to find its own identity against the backdrop of French colonialism. Nationalists, communists, Viet Minh, Buddhists, and Catholics fight each other as well as the French. The only common denominator in it all is the oppression of the ordinary man and the death of the young.
Into the dying embers of a colonial independence movement and the burgeoning fire that will heat up the Cold War comes Alden Pyle. The young Harvard educated Pyle is nominally a part of the U.S. Economic Mission. Strangely he appears throughout the country. From Hanoi to Saigon and at a number of battlefields, including oddly all alone during a mortaring on the outskirts of a medium size skirmish against the Viet Minh. He is more interested in promoting his “Third Force” against the communist oppressors than he is in fostering any economic development. He embodies the sometimes misplaced American desire to help and make things better. In others words the need to save someone. It doesn’t really matter who or what the someone may be, a country, a dog, an aging British journalist, or even the journalists woman. This desire goes astray in a multitude of ways and results in a number of deaths, including the aforementioned death of Pyle himself.
The foil to Pyle’s unquenchable enthusiasm, and the narrator of the story is Thomas Fowler. Fowler is a middle aged British journalist. He has seen enough and protests that he doesn’t take sides, he’s just there to report. World weary and jaded, Fowler is immediately annoyed by Pyle’s idealism and eventually is forced to confront his own ideals as Pyle threatens his present by disrupting Fowler’s small world with his “Third Force” and then Fowler’s future as he convinces Fowler’s paramour Phuong to leave him for the promise of a better life with Pyle. Worried about his own pending mortality, his potential life alone without Phoung and having to start over as he discovers he is being promoted out of his job and the country he feels comfortable in, he is compelled to take steps to save himself.
Voigt embodies the slowly dissolving resolve of the French. Having to balance the Vietnamese police forces, the French colonial powers and the rising realization of his own impotence to truly affect the outcome, this police officer does the one thing he can. He does the one this that he was good at and the only thing that brings any sort of result, if not a sense of accomplishment. He investigates. The death of Pyle, or rather the why of the death of Pyle, moves him to question Fowler. This ultimately forces Fowler, and by association us, to question ourselves.
The final character, that must not be forgotten is Phuong. The young woman apparently unknowingly the final amorous vertex with Fowler and Pyle. Phuong must thread her own passage through the battlefield of Vietnam using what she can. Unable to follow Fowler home because of his preexisting marriage, Phuong grasps for any route she can find to a way to safety.
These elements push and pull against each other. Each attempting to change the other while keeping themselves intact. Immovable forces can never reach an apex. The best they can do is remain stable. Unfortunately, as with the misplaced intentions of Pyle, all stability will lead to is eventual stagnation and finally death. This is where all our characters find themselves as the story begins where it ends. Fowler is forced to accept his own involvement in life as he pushes valiantly but hopelessly against it. Phuong is back in the same small flat with no hope of finding that better life in the new world. Voigt trudging on with his investigations that come to no true meaningful conclusions. And Pyle dead.
Seen as an allegory for the death of imperialism it contrasts and amplifies the quest for our own meaning in life and seems to simply asks us to question our own path to loneliness and death. As with all good stories it is more than that. A parable, asking us to make sure we don’t fight just for our own ends but to truly question the world around us and make sure we make the correct hard choices. The choices that lead not to what we want but what we need. The choices that make not just ourselves flourish but that looks at the world realistically and helps make it better.
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