Carl Brush's Reviews > The Quiet American

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
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May 06, 12


The Quiet American has held some fascination for U.S. audiences, having been produced as films in 1958 and 2002. Apparently the notion of innocent Americans trying to do democratic good in strange lands makes good entertainment. I might make an interesting study (probably already been done) to compare and contrast this with The Ugly American, which came out about the same time and was also made into two films (1958 and 1963). I haven’t read Ugly, but it portrays conventional Americans as loud and ostentatious and contrasts them with good Americans who live with the people and operate somewhat like Peace Corps folks in helping villages improve their lives in limited and simple ways. Both books are serious attempts to look into western adventurism in Southeast Asia. Of course, we all know how that has turned out so far.
Greene’s novel is set in Vietnam during the last throes of the French effort to hang on to their colonial base in Asia. The narrator, Fowler, is a foreign correspondent who has been stationed in Saigon for a number of years and has taken a young local concubine. Into the picture comes one Aldon Pyle. (One is tempted to say “Gomer,” even though he’s really nothing like that.) Pyle, young and naive, purportedly works for an economic arm of our state department, and has a deportment decidedly in contrast to the “loud and ostentatious” Americans who have been part of Fowler’s experience. He’s murdered soon after the book begins. The rest moves back and forth in time between Pyle dead and Pyle alive.

How much of Pyle’s naivite is pose and how much natural is a confusion both for Fowler and for us. Early on, however, he reveals that he is dangerous.
First, he falls in love with Fowler’s woman, Phuong, and announces openly that he plans to take her away. Not by force. He’s sure she’ll see the advantage of a younger man who can take her back to America. Second, he keeps turning up in combat situations that Fowler has been assigned to cover, despite the fact that he’s a noncombatant.

Certain information comes to Fowler about Pyle’s activities. Ambiguous information that leaves his status and purpose in some doubt. In the meantime, the dance with Phuong continues, as do the conversations between them. Naturally (since this is Greene), much of the talk concerns religion and politics. For religious reasons, Fowler’s wife back in England, won’t divorce him. His atheism is tested. His selfish motives are questioned (somewhat like Querry’s in A burnt-Out Case. When he’s hurt, for example, he asks that another wounded man be looked to first, not out of compassion, but because the man’s cries are bothering him.) The right and wrong of Colonial power and siding with it or against it comes up often. Pyle himself is on the side of something he calls a Third Column that will bypass the interests of the current combatants and create a new democracy. Sound familiar? Of course, he needs indigenous allies, allies who may not be so interested in democracy as in American cash and weapons. Still sound familiar? We quiet Americans might have saved a few hundred thousand lives and hundreds of billions of dollars if we’d listened to good Uncle Graham in the first place. As it is, you can still pick up the advice for very little cost. Certainly less than the 3 billion/week we’re spending in Afghanistan, or do I mean, Iraq, or Vietnam, or where next? We quiet Americans are a silent lot. You’ll never hear the drone that gets you.
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