Rating: 4 stars
Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is somber look at the war between France and the Vietminh through the eyes of a British journalist. Fowler has made a life for himself in Saigon, with a girlfriend, a routine, and all the distance he needs from his regular life in England. Into his settled existence comes Pyle, a young and idealistic American working on a clandestine mission under cover of the medical corps.
Through Fowler’s membership of the press corps, Greene describes the inevitability of war, the secrecy of the French army, desperate not to give ammunition to the Left back in France, the lack of resources that means soldiers die unnecessarily, and the difficulty of fighting in jungle terrain.
Pyle is extremely confident, stupidly so, and his hubris causes problems more wide reaching than just Fowler’s immediate concerns.
Fowler is world-weary and cynical about Pyle’s idealism. He tries to remain neutral when reporting on the war, but his stories are usually altered by the censor to prevent any favour being shown to the Communist forces. His weariness stems from his understanding that journalism isn’t about telling the truth, it’s about spinning stories that tell the truths the readers want to hear.
Fowler has a jaded view of love, as well. He is married to a very religious woman, but he is separated from her. He had an affair with a woman, leaving his wife to live with her, but he ended the relationship because he loved her and he knew it wasn’t going to last. He reasons that he was afraid of losing her love, and it was better for him to end things before that happened. He shares this with Pyle, who is inexperienced with women, wanting to impress on him that love shouldn’t be idealised.
It isn’t clear who Pyle is. He presents himself as an innocent abroad, in Vietnam to offer humane support to victims of the conflict, but he is calculating and assured of himself in a way that suggests the innocence is a ruse. He blugeons Fowler with his friendship, which isn’t friendship at all. His actions towards him are almost sadistic.
Fowler simply wants a quiet life, but Pyle gets under his skin and eventually Fowler finds himself taking sides. His neutrality ends as a result of personal emotion. Pyle’s true reason for being in Vietnam becomes clear, and it changes Fowler.
The Quiet American is a slow moving tale, but there are moments of tension and its view of the futility of war made me think of M*A*S*H*. It’s also a very male book. Fowler and Pyle fight over a woman, and she doesn’t really get a look in. She’s a character in the background, and we don’t hear her voice at all. That’s not to say that the book is misogynist. It isn’t at all. I had the sense that Phuong was the person who had most control over her fate, despite Fowler and Pyle behaving as though it was all down to them. It felt as though she was keeping her true self back from each man, and taking decisions based on what was best for her. Pyle views her as someone to be rescued, while Fowler views her as someone strong but ultimately servile.
This is the third book I’ve read by Greene, and it is very different in tone to Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul. I like the way Greene writes, his descriptions are elegant and to the point, but there is something aloof about his writing. It’s been a long time since I read the other two books. I’ve always meant to read more by him, but have somehow never got round to it. Although I’ve enjoyed all three books, he isn’t a writer that makes me feel I must read everything by him immediately. He’s like someone I visit occasionally, not someone I make definite plans to see regularly. An acquaintance rather than a friend.