THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene
Penguin Classics, 2004
originally published in 1955
Set during the First Indochina War, The Quiet American is narrated by the cynical British journalist Thomas Fowler, who meets the young idealistic American agent Alden Pyle. The novel’s larger conflict is centered on the French and American invasion of Vietnam, which is echoed microcosmically in the conflict that arises between Fowler and Pyle when they both fall in love with the same Vietnamese woman, Phuong.
I loved Greene’s writing, which was sparse but filled with sharp observations and imagery:
“That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. 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.”
There is so much here that resonates regarding this novel’s sociopolitical context (Greene’s observations on the destructive nature of colonialism read as both historic and prescient, over 60 years after it was published), but it was the character work that I found the most arresting. Fowler and Pyle are both emblematic of their countries – Fowler is jaded but also delusional enough to have convinced himself of his own neutrality in the war; Pyle is brash, naive, well-meaning, and disruptive. Phuong’s own character is rather anemically constructed, a source of frustration for the modern reader but probably a deliberate choice on Greene’s part as Fowler and Pyle both project onto her, attempt to possess her, while barely able to communicate with her. Surprising and inevitable all at once, the trajectory of Pyle and Fowler’s characters and the dynamic between them remains the singular point of intrigue throughout the novel, for those of us less interested in the military detail that obviously transfixed Greene. That said, if this is a historic period that interests you more than it does me, this is a must-read.
This was my first Graham Greene but it certainly won’t be my last – I just found this so accomplished and well-constructed. The Quiet American is a subtle and affecting meditation on war and morality; it’s a cautionary tale that was criticized upon its publication for being anti-American, and it’s going to remain relevant until we finally listen to it.