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The Quiet American by Graham Greene
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Earlier this year I was in Prague visiting a friend of mine. My personal circumstances haven’t been the best for the last twelve months and I had slipped into a state of deep depression without realising it. The purpose of this trip was to get away from everything, to drink a lot and lose myself in that beautiful city. One afternoon my friend and I were in a bar, six drinks deep and thrillingly relaxed. That is, until a group of Americans arrived. They took the table behind us, and began to fight for each other’s attention like a bunch of rambunctious puppies. ‘I hate them,’ my friend said quietly, and at first I thought he meant only this particular group, until he followed up with ‘fucking Americans, I can’t stand them.’ It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone dismiss an entire nation, but I was still surprised by this passionate outburst. Of course, I was aware of the stereotype of the brash and grossly impolite and uncultured American, but I had never really given it much thought, and, with ‘yanks’ being in short supply in Sheffield, I certainly hadn’t before heard such vitriol directed at them. ‘They’ve probably come over here to start a war,’ my friend seethed.

Since returning from Prague, and now particularly sensitive to it, I have come to realise that this negative stereotype is fairly common amongst the English, and this was at least partly the reason why I have been so interested in reading Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. It is worth noting in this regard that the title itself could be interpreted as a sly form of mockery, in that it speaks with an element of surprise, as though a quiet American is a rare thing. The American in question is Alden Pyle, a young man with an ‘unused face’, who arrives in war-stricken Vietnam, seemingly as some kind of charity or aid worker, and quickly befriends an Englishman, Thomas Fowler, and his native girlfriend, Phuong. This triangle comes to dominate the novel, and has both political and personal repercussions.

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The Quiet American is narrated by Fowler, and he describes Pyle numerous times as naïve and innocent. Moreover, the young man himself admits that he lacks experience, especially with women. In his early interactions with Phuong he is excessively polite. He pulls out her chair for her in a bar and, as they sit around a table, he objects to what he considers to be indiscreet conversation, the kind not suitable for a woman’s ears. It is clear that for Pyle women, or Vietnamese women at least, ought to be protected, that he sees them as delicate creatures or even almost as children. Indeed, he is disproportionately affected when one of his fellow countrymen visits a brothel. This man, Granger, is the archetypal loud American, a straight-talking, bullish and arrogant Philadelphian, with whom Fowler occasionally locks horns.

While it seems as though Pyle is a sweet, harmless, candid, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy, with his whole life ahead of him, Fowler is an ageing journalist with a developing paunch and a wife back in England. In contrast to his starry-eyed young friend, Fowler’s predominant attitude is a kind of disgruntled, world-weariness. Indeed, he claims to only want 18 year old Phuong in order to fight off the loneliness of old-age. To this end, the arrival of Pyle is the worst thing that could have happened to him, because his new friend falls in love with her and becomes intent on marrying her. Predictably, Pyle’s love for Phuong is idealistic, as is his approach to his rival. He claims that he wants to do the right and honourable thing, for example, he undergoes extreme danger in order to go to Fowler and reveal to him his feelings for the man’s girlfriend. Significantly, both in terms of understanding Pyle and the novel as a whole, Fowler asks him why he doesn’t just leave without telling Phuong about his love, why he doesn’t want to avoid causing trouble, and Pyle responds by saying that this wouldn’t be fair.

“I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.”


For Alden Pyle the consequences of his actions are less important than his intention. His intention is to do the right thing, and so if people get hurt that is simply an unfortunate, regrettable, but unavoidable form of collateral damage. What is paramount is that he acted in accordance with his principles. Fowler, on the other hand, understands that things are never that clear cut, that a good man trying to do good can, as a result, do bad things, can cause harm, which in this instance would be to hurt Fowler and possibly Phuong also. I found all this fascinating. One never doubts that Pyle is in earnest, that he is on the level, that he is a nice guy, he is simply “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” His character flaw is refusing to accept, or to see, the world as it is.

I wrote earlier about personal and political repercussions, and it is interesting, and satisfying, how Greene uses this love triangle to mirror the political situation in the country. Both Pyle and Fowler are outsiders, or invaders if you like, fighting over a Vietnamese, and while the American may be frequently described as innocent, the only real innocent in the situation is Phuong, who comes to represent the ordinary civilian during the war. Moreover, it is not surprising that Pyle brings the same attitude towards his job, which, we come to realise, is not as an aid worker, but a kind of terrorist working for the American government. Again, Pyle’s dangerous idealism, his naivety, means that he harms while trying to do good or he justifies harm in the name of what is good. The line between terrorist and liberator is, for him, not a thin one, it is clear and pronounced. Greene’s point appears to be that this is the American mind-set, that America wades into conflicts with the best intentions in the world, without comprehending the extent of the damage they are causing or likely to cause.

“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 his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”


However, while I can see why he thought this, and I agree to an extent, I, ironically, think he was being too naive himself [unless of course I have misunderstood him]. In terms of individual soldiers, then, yes, I’ve met quite a few and they have all been absolutely convinced that what they are doing – in Iraq, Afghanistan etc – is entirely positive, that they are helping these poor downtrodden countries, that they are bringing democracy to them, and that this is a wonderful thing, even if they have to kill thousands of innocent people in order to do it. What I don’t accept is that the real people in power in America, the people who sanction these conflicts, who send these individuals into these countries, are like Pyle, I don’t buy that they are the Goofy, ‘aw shucks’ variety. I believe that the people who sanction war know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Power, greed, money, these are the things that drive foreign policy. Oh sure, we’ll get told that, for example, communism is a threat to world security, but the real threat it poses is to certain people’s bank balances; likewise, human rights violations are never the reason we engage. The American [and British] government don’t give a single, shiny fuck about human rights violations.

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One further potential flaw with The Quiet American is that the friendship between the two men comes across as forced, certainly on Pyle’s side. He speaks about Fowler being his best friend, even though they have known each other for only a very short time. He compliments the man frequently and claims to understand him, to such an extent that it just does not ring true. However, this isn’t necessarily a failure of Greene’s, it could be justified in line with the book’s themes. Isn’t Pyle’s insistence that Fowler is a good man, that the men have bonded and are great friends, a sign of his immaturity? One could even argue that it is the arrogance of the American, one that believes that he can make friends so easily and can understand other people better than they understand themselves. In terms of Fowler, his affection makes sense. He appreciates Pyle’s wide-eyed approach to life, which is so different from his own; but he never considers them to be bosom buddies like Pyle does.

I’ve written a lot about Pyle in this review, and I do think that he is a wonderful creation, but, for me, it is through Fowler that Greene raises the most engaging and important question. As previously noted, he is in Vietnam to report on the war between the French and the Viet Mihn communist-nationalist revolutionaries. Fowler, according to himself, steadfastly refuses to take sides, going so far as to say that he has no opinions on what is happening in the country. As The Quiet American pushes on towards its moving conclusion, Greene asks ‘is it possible to not become involved? Can you watch people being killed and not have an opinion?’ This is something that I ask of people all the time, most recently with the refugee crisis. Can you remain neutral in the face of overwhelming suffering? I know I can’t. And neither, ultimately, can Fowler, who is forced to throw off his moral cowardice and act. I won’t reveal what he does, or the consequences of what he does, but it is worth noting that the decision to act is justified in almost exactly the same way that Pyle justifies his own actions, in that it involves the sacrifice of life for, the argument states, the greater good. Perhaps then the only thing one can say with any certainty where war is concerned is that there are no absolutes, no easy answers, it is, and will remain, a messy, horrible, horrifying state of affairs. Much like love, I guess.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 20, 2015 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Another wonderfully readable write-up, P. I hope you had a good time in Prague and that your ‘personal circumstances’ are taking a turn for the sunnier.


message 2: by [P] (new) - rated it 4 stars

[P] Warwick wrote: "Another wonderfully readable write-up, P. I hope you had a good time in Prague and that your ‘personal circumstances’ are taking a turn for the sunnier."

Cheers Warwick. I don't know if you have read TQA but I think you'd enjoy it. And thanks...not sunnier, but I'm learning how to better deal with it all. Prague was fantastic, I love the place. In fact, I want to move there. I felt freer than I have done for years.


message 3: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia That sounds great. And the idea of emigrating to Prague.

Even with a lot more constraints than I used to have I still love the feeling of moving somewhere new, that a lot of stuff has been washed away. Or at least can be thought about differently because of not seeing the same places every day and not having to deal with certain people. (Although, whilst the streets are different, the internet still looks frustratingly identical.)


message 4: by [P] (new) - rated it 4 stars

[P] Antonomasia wrote: "That sounds great. And the idea of emigrating to Prague.

Even with a lot more constraints than I used to have I still love the feeling of moving somewhere new, that a lot of stuff has been washed ..."


The book is really good. I debated the full 5 stars, even though stars are pretty meaningless. Yeah, I really have my heart set on moving out there. It all comes down to whether I can persuade my girlfriend to go. If I was single I genuinely wouldn't have come back.


message 5: by Warwick (new)

Warwick As someone who has moved countries twice now in pursuit of better lifestyle and general happiness, I can only say go for it. New bureaucratic systems are always annoying, but apart from all the admin bollocks you have to deal with, it's been overwhelmingly positive for me.


message 6: by [P] (new) - rated it 4 stars

[P] Warwick wrote: "As someone who has moved countries twice now in pursuit of better lifestyle and general happiness, I can only say go for it. New bureaucratic systems are always annoying, but apart from all the adm..."

I know it would be good for me. You're married, right? I'm assuming your wife was up for it. For me, that's the thing that will prevent this from happening: if I can't convince my girlfriend to go. Without getting in to the details of my 'personal circumstances,' she can't go right now, and neither really can I. Maybe in the near future. My friend who lives in Prague reckons he can get me a job straightaway, so the temptation has been really strong. I don't like the UK anymore, if I ever did. I burst into tears when I got back, and I'm not a crier at all.


message 7: by Antonomasia (last edited Sep 20, 2015 01:40PM) (new)

Antonomasia @Warwick, would be interested in your opinions about better lifestyle and general happiness in differeent European countries, esp beacuse I recently read this - but would have better context for asking if had actually finished the bloody review.


Sketchbook This is an exceptional review...


message 9: by [P] (new) - rated it 4 stars

[P] Sketchbook wrote: "This is an exceptional review..."

Cheers Sketchbook, it's kind of you to say so.


message 10: by Sketchbook (last edited Sep 20, 2015 04:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Sketchbook I piss on GRs "set to private." An after-thought.


message 11: by Michelle (new)

Michelle I piss on people who have a problem with private profiles. Really? You can't imagine WHY someone has done that. Maybe they are tired of being harassed by certain people on GR so they save precious time and energy and hit Private. For me, I am avoiding being stalked by some psychotic people I know. For that reason, I am glad the Private selection exists.


message 12: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Also, forgot to add, I liked this review. I read this book in college and think I missed some of its themes, so, thank you P.


Agnieszka As always , an excellent review , [P] . Also really glad to see you in a good form . Cheers .


message 14: by Antonomasia (last edited Sep 20, 2015 11:47PM) (new)

Antonomasia Ooh, I'd love to take on this argument properly - I'm in that kind of mood - though I dunno if it's even mine to have - can't tell if people on my friends list have private profiles.
Except I don't want to post all my own reasons on a public thread. It's not because of people who've been a nuisance on GR though. I also don't want the profile to be private permanently, but here that sounds too much like apology for use of a legitimate, albeit blunt, site option.

Another reason that might be pertinent: some people have sensitive jobs and it's better if all their opinions aren't easily found on one page, and may mean they don't have to curtail their freedom of expression quite so much.

Also, that comment was a total non-sequitur. No relevance to content of the review or previous comments.
Learning a bit of 'live and let live' and accepting the different choices of others - ones you wouldn't make yourself - wouldn't do any harm here.

However I will admit to occasionally having been pissed off by friends-only reviews discussion threads, on the reviews of friends of friends), which I wanted to join but couldn't, and in which no one was making the points I wanted to. The reviewer probably wouldn't have had a problem with me personally, but like I said, these things are blunt instruments, and in the end these minor irksomenesses of online life just need to be ignored.


message 15: by [P] (new) - rated it 4 stars

[P] Agnieszka wrote: "As always , an excellent review , [P] . Also really glad to see you in a good form . Cheers ."

Thanks a lot, Agnieszka.

Michelle wrote: "Also, forgot to add, I liked this review. I read this book in college and think I missed some of its themes, so, thank you P."

You're welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.


message 16: by Warwick (new)

Warwick Antonomasia wrote: "@Warwick, would be interested in your opinions about better lifestyle and general happiness in differeent European countries, esp beacuse I recently read this - but would have better context for a..."

Well, it's made me happier. I am pragmatic about it – it's more to do with cost of living and professional opportunities than with any ephemeral ‘national mood’ or character, which does feature but which is usually overstated by starry-eyed visitors. A lot of our anglo friends in France and Switzerland have been very homesick and miserable, and it can be extremely jarring when the day-to-day stuff like banks, mortgages etc. is very different procedurally from the UK, especially if you're trying to overcome a language barrier as well. Deciding to live somewhere is, obviously, completely different from visiting. You just see different aspects of a place, and some only become apparent after several months, or longer. There is potentially a lot more daily stress involved in getting stuff done. And of course making friends can be difficult – it's easy to end up subsisting in an expat bubble.

However, for me, leaving the UK meant I could take more interesting work without having to go to London (which was otherwise the only way to progress in the career I was in). I used to look out of the window every morning and see rainy skies and traffic jams, now the view from my apartment is this (taken at breakfast this morning):

(view spoiler)

My kids have swum in the lake all summer and instead of being stuck in daycare, my daughter goes to a ‘Waldkrippe’ where she does forest walks and learns about fire safety at age 3! It's not that I couldn't afford these things in the UK, it's that these options simply did not exist. And I couldn't afford them.


message 17: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia Thx. The better views, lack of London stress and innovative kindergarten activities all get mentioned in the Danish book too.


message 18: by Louise (new) - added it

Louise Thanks for the review P - I am returning to Greene now after a break of many years - I actually did Brighton Rock while at school - and I'm just blown away all over again by the breathtaking accuracy of his observations, from everything as simple as how a woman picks up her compact to the watching the sunset at Baie D'Along - and he just makes it all seem so easy! Not surprised to hear about your comments re the Yanks in Prague - I was there in 1991 and they were flooding the place even then, with fairly predictable effect .
You find almost identical attitudes in Istanbul where they are roundly loathed by the locals.


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