Often lauded as Greene’s masterpiece, The Quiet American is an incredibly well-crafted novel set in Vietnam while the French were still fighting and we Americans were creeping into the mire. While his politics have always been controversial, Graham Greene managed such prescience with this novel that he could be mistaken as a prophet.
The quiet American of the title is a caricature, but we so often live up to the caricatures of ourselves. Certainly, we did in Vietnam. The Quiet American was first published in 1955, well before America was inextricably tangled in the affairs of Vietnam. Whether through depth of insight or stopped-clock coincidence, Graham Green outlined in advance the history of American involvement in Indo-China. He writes so skillfully and has such fundamental understanding of individual human beings that the natural interpretation is that Graham Greene knew what he was talking about.
The politics of the novel are far less interesting, to me, than the craftsmanship and the characterizations. Greene had published oustanding works like The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter by the time he penned this classic. Through these prior works, Greene had polished and had demonstrated his enviable skill as an author and, with The Quiet American, provides an awesome display of his highly refined technical abilities.
The novel relates the story of Thomas Fowler (the narrator), Alden Pyle (the quiet American), Phuong (Fowler’s mistress), and Vigot (French inspector). We learn almost immediatley that Pyle is dead. While portions of the novel relate the progress of Vigot’s investigation into Pyle’s death, the investigation serves primarily to provide a frame in which to set the story of Fowler and Pyle. Greene manages the shifting time frames effortlessly while spinning a complex yarn that plays out without a snag.
‘Not guilty,’ I said. I told myself that it was true. Didn’t Pyle always go his own way? I looked for any feeling in myself, even resentment at a policeman’s suspicion, but I could find none. No one but Pyle was responsible.
Fowler’s clinical analysis of Pyle’s death is typical for the man. He approaches Pyle’s attempts to woo Phuong in much the same way. Fowler is a man of the world; he is cynical and removed. Pyle is idealistic, naive, and passionate. None of these traits, though, is the tragic flaw in Pyle’s character. At least, Pyle’s tragic flaw is too nuanced to be captured by any of those adjectives. Fowler describes Pyle’s failing of character about a quarter of the way into the book:
[H]e was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others. On one occasion — but that was months later — I lost control and thrust his foot into it, into the pain I mean, and I remember how he turned away and looked at his stained choe in perplexity and said, ‘I must get a shine before I see the Minister.’ I knew then he was already forming his phrases in the style he had learnt from York Harding. Yet he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others, until that final night under the bridge to Dakow.
When Greene later has Fowler describe this scene during a flashback, the effect is powerfully haunting. The earlier description I have quoted resonates profoundly in the background of the more immediate and charged description of events that occurs later in the novel. This is but one example of Greene’s masterful writing. By foreshadowing the (past) event without disclosing too much, he sets the reader up for a later revelation.
He sets scenes nicely too. From the feel of cafes in the city to rice paddies farther out to the cockpit of a bomber, Greene pulls the reader into both his story and its setting. It helps, of course, that we now know from movies and later books some of what makes Vietnam such a compelling setting. But Greene’s work preceded these others; it anticipated them.
For all its technical achievement and political foresight, the book is also very personal. While Pyle is not only a character in the book, he is also caricature and allegorical device. Fowler, though, is as fully developed a character as you can expect and an intelligently observant one too.
‘I didn’t mean that,’ Pyle said. ‘When you are in love you want to play the game, that’s all.’ That’s true, I thought, but not as he innocently means it. To be in love is to see yourself as someone else sees you, it is to be in love with the falsified and exalted image of yourself. In love we are incapable of honour — the courageous act is no more than playing a part to an audience of two. Perhaps I was no longer in love but I remembered.
As well as being an entertaining tale of romance, murder, and international intrigue, The Quiet American is a master class in writing. The book is short and relatively fast-paced. I have had little excuse for not reading it until now. If only all writers had the technical proficiency of Greene…..and his literary ear…and his gift for stories. If only all writers shared his genius, we readers would be in heaven.