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"He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance.",,
This review is from: The Quiet American (Paperback)
The subject line is Greene's description of Alden Pyle. Readers may speculate on the larger, metaphorical dimensions of the book's three principal characters, and impose them on their countries of origin. Pyle is the young, crew-cut American, fresh out of an Ivy League school, over-schooled and undereducated, his head stuffed full of the geo-political notions of the fictional York Harding. Fowler is the cynical, accommodating middle-aged British reporter, just "reporting the facts," not taking sides, until he finally feels he has to. And there is the lovely Ms Phuong, trying to make the best of it in a troubled landscape, a lover to both men, and perhaps a symbol of Vietnam herself.
It was January, 1994, and I was leaving the Hanoi War Museum, one of the first wave of Americans to return. Vietnam was just on the cusp of letting tourists wander the country freely; the War Museum had not been "sanitized" yet (which would happen in only two more years), to remove exhibits that might offend our "sensibilities." And over in the corner was an elderly Vietnamese lady, selling books from a small pile, only two of which were in English, this being one of them. Was it just chance, or did she know that this was the quintessential book about the American involvement in Vietnam, prescient beyond belief, having been written at the very, very beginning, in 1955? I had read it prior to my first, year-long trip there, and decided to purchase another copy.
Today the book is even more relevant, in ways that even Greene did not anticipate. It continues to merit re-reads, I've finished my third. Greene modeled the character of Pyle on the very real life Kermit Roosevelt, who led the CIA's coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran, in 1953. Pyle was indifferent to the "collateral damage" of his actions, the civilians who had died for a higher purpose, "democracy." And it was this indifference that finally pushed Fowler to take sides. For a number of years in the `50's and `60's the US Immigration would not allow Greene into the United States. They don't have to state a reason, but certainly this book would be a leading contender.
Greene's biographers reveal a very unpleasant man, who betrayed most of his friends. No doubt there are many elements of Greene in Fowler, an unpleasant man who betrays the person who saved his life. None of the characters are "uplifting," all are profoundly flawed, but wouldn't there be something absurdly wrong to fill a novel with uplifting characters that are involved in one of the more serious, and long-lasting follies of the 20th Century? We should dislike these people.
In real life Graham Green visited Dien Bien Phu on Dec. 12, 1953 (per Bernard Fall). One of the great "takeaways" of this book for me was Greene's description of the lies of the French military, courageously retaking villages that had never been reported loss, always able to definitively report the enemy dead, but not their own, "because they were too busy advancing..." et al. All the PR "spin" that would presage our own.
Greene reserves his main animus for York Harding. The professor of the Ivy League, sitting in his Ivory Tower, concocting theories that turned Vietnamese peasants into a Red Tide sweeping towards Sydney. Consider: "York Harding's a very courageous man. Why in Korea--." "He wasn't an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket, courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk's flagellation." Later, and more specifically: "He's the man you are looking for, Vigot. He killed Pyle--at long range." Indeed, Harding managed to "blind" this very bright man to the reality before his eyes.
How many York Harding's do we have today, constructing grandiose theories about the "clash of civilizations" and our duty to spread "democracy" throughout the Middle East, oblivious to the collateral damage, when Pyle's real life counterpart, Kermit Roosevelt, worked so hard to snuff it out because the people elected "the wrong guy." This book should be required reading in every university today, and by all serious readers thereafter, and twice might not be enough.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on March 13, 2009)