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The Quiet American Paperback – 7 Oct 2004
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"A master of storytelling" (The Times)
"One of the finest writers of any language" (Washington Post)
"A superb storyteller - he had a talent for depicting local colour, a keen sense of the dramatic, an eye for dialogue, and skill in pacing his prose" (New York Times)
"There has been no novel of any political scope about Vietnam since Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American" (Harper's)
"It might be nearly 60 years since The Quiet American was first published, but it still evokes the exotic promise of the Orient, and the troubled relationship Vietnam has with the West" (Wanderlust)
Into the intrigue and violence of Indo-China comes Pyle, a young idealistic American sent to promote democracy through a mysterious 'Third Force'. As his naive optimism starts to cause bloodshed, his friend Fowler, a cynical foreign correspondent, finds it hard to stand aside and watch. But even as he intervenes he wonders why: for the sake of politics, or for love?See all Product description
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The anti-hero journalist, Thomas Fowler, is a typical Greene creation, deeply cynical and world-weary, but also critically honest and self-aware, who through his association with the newly-arrived American special operations officer, Pyle, not only loses his Vietnamese girlfriend to him, but also becomes engaged in the on-going Vietnamese conflict, as his old-world, colonial realism is confronted by the dangerous ambitions of US idealism. In the end, Fowler wins out, in a fashion, but only by conflating his personal travails with the political situation, and becoming the passive collaborator in the murder of his rival, and, in a strange way, friend. It is a multiple love story: the love of two men for one woman; the platonic love between men in a conflict zone; and the love of Graham Greene for Vietnam and its people.
This book is a masterpiece of politically aware and engaged writing that never loses sight of the personal micro-drama within the semi-fictionalized reportage, and while it might be open to criticism as a traditionally occidental story placed in an oriental setting, it rises far above this through its deep exploration of the contradictory approaches within western society to the perceived threat of post-war communist-nationalist liberation movements. And it is the menage-à-trois that stands as a metaphor for this political dynamic, with Foster as the post-imperialist personification of European exploitation, Pyle as the exemplar of American, modernist and democratic idealism, and the girl they both love, Phuoung as the quasi-innocence of Vietnam, the plaything of two powerful men and cultures, both harmful in their differing ways.
Although not one of Greene's Catholic novels this is a profoundly moral work, with the seeming amorality of the protagonist only the mask of the war correspondent, who committed publicly to the neutrality of his trade, becomes engagé once his private beliefs - his love for Phuoung and his respect for her fellow Vietnamese - are assailed by the high-minded, but dangerous, motives of the idealistic Pyle. And it is this revelation of the need for his engagement that stands at the ethical centre of Greene's novel, as Fowler discovers that his love for a woman cannot be only a private concern in the midst of war, because to love is to care, and that requires engagement in the public realm as much as the private.
What Greene shows is how even the most cynical of men must make ethical choices when forced by circumstance, and that such choices come at a cost. Pyle must be stopped, and if that requires Fowler's accommodation with the Communists, who he knows will stop Pyle only through killing him, then that is a necessity in the particular context in which he finds himself. That Fowler benefits through his (in)action, by regaining Phuoung, only burdens him further, for doing what is right, even if rewarded, does not bring happiness in the moral universe known as Greeneland. In the end this wonderfully constructed and focused work of fiction is a salutary warning that has often gone unheeded. Western policy makers with idealistic pretensions towards societies they little understand should read this and take note, although it is doubtful they will.
Being a tragedy, the plot is full of ironies. The action may not seem to move very much until the final few pages, when a reader who so much as blinks can miss several developments at one blink. The last development of all may surprise you in a tragedy – it surprised me – but it may be necessary to give the reader’s tormented sense of pity some relief after Greene has described the mother putting some decent covering round what he calls ‘what remained of her baby’ when the bomb has been set off in the public square.
It is an easy read, I found, despite the heart of darkness that beats below the surface. That’s genius for you, I suppose. Is there any sense of justice at the end, or perhaps some feeling of stumbling ineptitude – all disastrous good intentions – being lifted out of people’s path? There might be, but I wouldn’t bank on it. For one thing, if Greene had appended a few more chapters, what would such a new ending have consisted of? Not more of the same, I bet.
Overall 5/5. (Plot 5/5, Characterisation 5/5, Literary Merit 5/5, Readability 4/5.)