The Quiet American

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

What it’s about: Saigon, French Indo-China, the early 1950s. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist, has been covering the French Indo-China War for two years. He has a young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, a former taxi-dancer who lives with him and prepares his nightly opium pipe. Phuong’s sister is keen for her to make an advantageous marriage with a foreigner, but disapproves of Fowler, who is married and unable to secure a divorce from his estranged (and devoutly Catholic) wife. Fowler meets Alden Pyle, an idealistic young American recently arrived in Saigon, who is working undercover for the CIA. Pyle quotes political theory extensively, denouncing communism and colonial rule and arguing instead for a “Third Force” to secure peace in Indo-China. Pyle meets and immediately falls in love with Phuong and later tells Fowler that he wishes to marry her. The two men ask Phuong to choose between them: she chooses Fowler, unaware that his editor wishes him to return to England. Fowler writes to his wife in front of Phuong, asking again for a divorce. Desperate to prove to his editor that he should remain abroad, Fowler travels to report on a war zone. He injures his foot and is rescued by Pyle, who carries him to safety. Fowler returns to Saigon and receives a reply from his wife who refuses to give him a divorce. Fowler lies to Phuong, telling her that they can get married in the hope that they will stay together. Pyle discovers the lie and tells Phuong, who leaves Fowler and moves in with Pyle. Humiliated, Fowler leaves again for the front line. On his return, he meets Pyle, who describes his plans to marry Phuong and return to America. A car bomb is detonated in a public square, killing fifty innocent civilians. Fowler deduces that Pyle has allied himself with a renegade general and is responsible for the bombing. Despite his misgivings, Fowler tells the Vietnamese about Pyle’s involvement in the bombing. Pyle is assassinated and his body is found under a bridge. The French police suspect Fowler of being involved with the killing but are unable to produce any evidence. Phuong returns to live with Fowler as if nothing has happened. The story ends with Fowler receiving word from his wife that she will divorce him, and contemplates his future with Phuong and his responsibility for Pyle’s death.

Why it’s a classic: The Quiet American garnered almost instant notoriety on its publication for Greene’s perceived criticism of American foreign policy. Written in the early 50s, and based partially on Greene’s experiences as a war correspondent in French Indo-China, the novel became eerily prophetic of what was to follow: American involvement in the Vietnam War, the environmental devastation caused by landmines and napalm, and the America’s humiliating military defeat and withdrawal. It’s unlikely that Greene, a Brit with his own set of inherited snobberies, would have approved of the radicals of the anti-Vietnam movement. Nonetheless, The Quiet American became a seminal text in the political discourse around American engagement with Vietnam. Fowler and Pyle’s political disagreements can be read as a metaphorical squabble between two empires – one in decline, the other beginning to assert its power – and their rivalry for Phuong plays out as a battle for the possession of Vietnam. Fowler’s cynicism and repeated desire for death is a striking psychological portrait of a man undone by war, just as Pyle is a cautionary tale about the dangers of well-intentioned political zealotry.

Greene’s view of America as a bullying neo-colonial force was a difficult pill for Hollywood to swallow. Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1958 film version reversed Greene’s politics, making Fowler a villain and Communist sympathiser and Pyle the all-American hero. A new adaptation in 2001, directed by Philip Noyce and with a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, stuck more closely to Greene’s story. The film, starring Michael Caine as Fowler, opened in cinemas just days after the Twin Towers attacks on September 11th. American preview audiences reacted negatively to the anti-American narrative, and the film’s distribution was delayed for a year, while Hollywood pumped out pro-military fare like Pearl Harbour and Star Wars Episode II.

Bouquet or Brickbat: Bouquet. I hadn’t intended to read another Graham Greene novel so soon after The End of the Affair, and in many ways they tell same story: a disaffected and cynical adulterer, competing with another man for the love of a woman against the backdrop of war. When The Quiet American was mooted as required reading for a writing retreat, I burned through it enthusiastically, responding once again to Greene’s forensic prose style, his masterful use of language and his psychological insights into white British heterosexual masculinity in toxic disarray.

While The Quiet American‘s politics continue to be debated, our distance from the events it describes allowed me to read it primarily, if not exclusively, as a great piece of mid-century literature. Greene’s neat four-part structure gives it the feeling of a well-made play: starting the action in media res with Pyle’s death, then circling back to describe the friendship, the unravelling of Fowler and Phuong’s affair, and Fowler’s eventual betrayal of Pyle. Within this scaffolding, Greene introduces some satisfyingly discordant notes that still feel remarkably fresh. The intimacy of Fowler’s first-person narrative showcases his intelligence, even as we’re aware of his anti-heroic refusal to get “involved”. Every sentence is surgically precise, with metaphors that cut the page like a knife: “The canal was full of bodies: I am reminded now of an Irish stew  containing too much meat.” Most satisfying of all is the Dostoyevskian ending, where Fowler gets away with murder and wins back his girl, but seems to be broken and on the verge of suicide. Greene had the political insight of a prophet, but he also deserves praise and an enduring audience for the brilliance of his literary style.

That said, there’s much in The Quiet American that’s unpalatable to contemporary readers, notably in Greene’s treatment of women. Phuong never comes alive as a character in her own right, existing as a Western stereotype of a sexually submissive Asian woman, a colourless two-dimensional landscape on which the two men fight their battles of conquest and ownership. Phuong’s sister is similarly flat, existing solely as a marriage broker and resigned to a world in which women are bought and sold for men’s pleasure. The only other female character of note,  Fowler’s estranged wife, appears as a disembodied voice through her letters, in which she appears bitter, narrow-minded and vindictive. As with The End of the Affair, Greene seems uninterested in women; the more satisfying and interesting relationships – the true love story, if you will – exist between the men. Fowler himself treats Phuong with a disturbing mix of condescension and cruelty, having sex with her “savagely as though I hated her”, and describing “avoid[ing] the loved thing, coquetting with death, like a woman who demands to be raped by her lover”, to which the correct critical response is “Ewww”.

It’s tempting to explain this sexism away as the work of a Dead White Male, thoughtlessly voicing the sexual and cultural politics of his age, with Fowler as the fictional stand-in for Greene’s own attitudes. Personally, I’m inclined to give Greene the benefit of the doubt, and credit him with putting some critical distance between himself and his characters. The characterisation of Phuong as a conquered territory is both the engine that drives the plot and the “fatal flaw” in Fowler’s character that leads to his undoing. Greene calibrates Fowler carefully, showing us his wit and insight, but landing the occasional clanger that makes us distrust him. Fowler also has some awareness of his own weaknesses, making him in some ways a very modern type of anti-hero. He’s capable of fine speeches supporting Vietnamese self-determination (“They want enough rice…. They don’t want to be shot at. They want once day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want“) but in the same breath describes Vietnamese women as children (“They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them – they hate you for a blow or an injustice”). His ambivalence extends to Pyle, whom he admires for “getting involved” and “taking a side”, even as he mocks the nativity of the young American’s political ideals.

I can appreciate that, for many readers, this still isn’t good enough. Today, we would want Phuong to speak for herself and have some agency over her life, rather than having to move silently between two male protectors. We’ve also (quite rightly) become suspicious of White Saviour narratives in which privileged outsiders claim to speak for the suffering of voiceless oppressed peoples. Despite all this, I still admire Greene for his ability to step (partially) away from the attitudes of his gender and class, and his fearlessness in pushing against the gung-ho colonial attitudes of his times. “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it”, Fowler says. “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” The Quiet American is an astringent corrective to those “innocent” notions of the glories of Empire, and a warning against the dangers of privileged white men doing harm in the world. In Fowler, we have another of Greene’s fascinating studies in the utter awfulness of being white, male and English. I’ll drink to that.

Quotable Quote: “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.”

“Rooms don’t change, ornaments stand where you place them: only the heart decays.”

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