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The Quiet American - Graham Greene

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Author: Graham Greene / Genre: Fiction

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    4 Reviews
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      14.07.2009 21:10
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      An interesting look at friendship, love and betrayal in Vietnam.

      Graham Greene is an author whose works explore religion, politics and morals within the modern world. Greene was a convert to Catholicism which provided a lot of material for his literary works. He suffered from bi-polar disorder and later abandoned his wife, whilst never divorcing due to religion.

      He was also recruited into MI6 by his sister due to his frequent travels and worked as an agent in Sierra Leone during WWII. The prominence of religion and Catholicism in Greene's work began to wane in his later years to be replaced with a humanistic approach. He attacks America's imperialistic attitude in later works and "The Quiet American" criticises their policy in Vietnam.

      "The Quiet American" was written in 1955 and draws on Greene's experience as an agent in WWII as well as his experience reporting in Vietnam. The book begins with the ending and moves between different periods of time.

      The protagonist is an English reporter, Fowler, who is world-weary and doesn't seem to believe in anything. He is separated from his religious wife who won't give him a divorce and lives with a young Vietnamese girl, Phuong. Fowler is portrayed as jealous and selfish for most of the novel.

      Phuong remains an enigma throughout the novel and never seems to have a voice of her own. Both Fowler and Pyle have their own idealized versions of her but we are never sure what her true character is. Most of her decisions are made by her elder sister who wants to marry her off to a foreigner. Phuong accquiesces to the needs and wants of the men who claim to love her. All she appears to want is protection and financial security.

      Pyle is the "Quiet American" of the title and is young and idealistic. He believes that he can help shape Vietnam into a type of democracy through the "third force" which is an ideology he has read about. He believes that he is in love with Phuong and wants to marry her because he believes he can give her a more stable future than Fowler. Pyle has come to Vietnam as part of an Economic mission but he soon gets in over his head due to his ideals.

      I found this an odd book as Fowler was fairly unlikeable as the protagonist whilst Pyle is oddly naive. Fowler constantly protests Pyle's innocent frame of mind and yet he doesn't even like him.

      Pyle, on the other hand, continually says that Fowler is his best friend and wants to believe that he is more honourable than he really is. However, he also wants what Fowler has - Phuong - and accordingly takes her.

      The attitude that Phuong has no say in her own life is something that I found a bit irritating. However it probably was true of a young girl's life in 1950's Vietnam - her elders would make her decisions for her. Marriage to a foreigner was one of the best opportunities they would have for a better life.

      Greene paints a picture of Vietnam as a weary place with everyone just going through the motions. The French are fighting to retain their hold over the country whilst the Communists continually make incursions into French territory. There is an air of futility throughout the novel. Fowler lies to Phuong about the possibility of obtaining a divorce in order to keep her with him. Pyle wants to improve the country but only adds to the bloodshed. The journalists are told what to write and the truth is not something that comes out often.

      Fowler keeps mulling over his role in Pyle's death and tries to justify it to himself throughout the entire novel. (The fact of Pyle's death isn't a plot spolier as it is revealed in the first few pages of the novel).

      Vigot is the French inspector investigating Pyle's death and he questions Fowler in the belief that he knows more than he is telling. He knows that there is more to Fowler's involvement but he also knows that finding out what it is probably wouldn't do any good.

      I enjoyed reading this book as it was interesting but I didn't have much background knowledge about Vietnam and the French so was quite confused by it.

      The characters were well drawn although we remain almost exclusively immersed in Fowler's thoughts and feelings throughout. Pyle never really develops as a character - he is an American but he is also an anomaly as he is a "Quiet American". We never really know what he is up to, except that he ends up doing more harm than good. His lack of judgement is shown through his relation to Fowler in that he thinks Fowler is his friend when Fowler doesn't particularly like or trust him. He is contrasted with a fellow American - Granger - who is brash, loud and obnoxious.

      Fowler is almost repellent in contrast as he is only interested in himself. He betrays Pyle although he believes that he is doing it for the greater good. He lies to the people around him and claims that he does not get involved. He believes in nothing and no-one and his life is shown to be sad and empty. Even Phuong is just there to fill a space and make up his opium pipes.

      I think this was an interesting look at Vietnam and was worth reading, although the main focus is on morality, idealism and betrayal rather than the war the French were fighting. We see the beginnings of the American intervention through Pyle and his ideals but also that this intervention could have tragic repercussions for both the youth of America and the people of Vietnam.

      I just couldn't warm to the characters in the novel but perhaps the intent behind the writing of the novel was the cause of this. I would recommend this as it held my attention and explores different areas rather than just war and death.

      This review can also be found on ciao.co.uk under my username.

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        06.02.2009 14:29
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        Resigned, vivid and insightful

        This book will lull you into a detached necessity to read......

        Excellent, forlorn thoughts and observations from ex-pat reporter in troubled Vietnam.....

        Decadent, empty, lonely and cynical feelings articulated towards the age gap.....

        His wisdom of perspective sees through and past the idealism of the young American Pyle....a part of his own self that is lost and that he is responsible ultimately for murdering.......

        His woman is dependent upon him, a fickle sense of need....and he is naturally afraid of losing her to a younger man who will bring him loneliness.

        This is the truth behind Desire and Motivation.....the political/personal reasons....Is Phoung keeping him with her pipes...?

        It is a vivid and insightful account. The weaknesses of mankind...the conscience we have towards others.....The burden of knowledge, and wisdom and age....

        Filled with the drugs of causes and deeds, and yet almost a bid for his old age to come...to bring the resignation from them; a sense of something at least, more simple.

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          12.12.2003 23:30
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          This is the patent age of new inventions For killing bodies, and for saving souls All propagated with the best intentions Byron I first came across The Quiet American in my Chinese girlfriend's bookcase, its spine bound in Penguin orange. Watercolour flames were roaring on the front cover and a man quietly watched the burning tropical forest. The story begins on a sweltering dangerous evening in Saigon, in a dingy apartment on the rue Catinat. In the north, the colonial French are bogged down in a bloody guerrilla war with the Communists, but here as yet, only the occasional grenade or sly factional murder disturbs the city. As evening turns to night the visitor that English war reporter Thomas Fowler is waiting for, American Aid worker Alden Pyle fails to come and Fowler goes down to the street to look for him. I turned to go indoors when I saw a girl waiting in the next doorway. I couldn't see her face, only her white silk trousers and the long flowered robe, but I knew her for all that. She had so often waited for me to come home at just this place and hour. "Phuong," I said - which means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from the ashes. I knew before she had time to tell that she was waiting for Pyle too. Phuong is Pyle's fiancé, but long before he ever came to Vietnam she was Fowler's mistress. Pyle fell in love with her, and determined that she would be better off married to him than the lover of an aging European whose long-estranged Catholic wife refuses to divorce him. The keyword was marriage. Pyle believed in being 'involved'. Fowler asks her if she will wait upstairs. She followed me upstairs. I thought of several ironic and unpleasant jests I might make, but neither her English nor her French would have been good enough to understand the irony, an
          d, strange to say, I had no desire to hurt her or even to hurt myself. When we reached the landing all the old women turned their heads, and as soon as we had passed their voices rose and fell as though they were singing together. "What are they talking about?" "They think I have come home." As Phuong and Fowler slip into their old routines, there is a knock on the door, but it isn't Pyle. Instead, a Vietnamese policeman conducts the pair to the French Sureté where Inspector Vigot sits tired and depressed with a volume of Pascal open on his desk. "What do you know about Pyle? Please answer my questions Monsieur Fowler. Please believe me, this is very serious." "I am a friend," I said. "Why not? I shall be going home one day, won't I? I can't take her with me. She'll be all right with him. It's a reasonable arrangement. And he's going to marry her, he says. He might, you know. He's a good chap in his way. Serious. Not like those noisy bastards at the Continental. A quiet American." Vigot said "Yes." he seemed to be looking for words on his desk with which to convey his meaning as precisely as I had done. "A very quiet American." "Is he in the mortuary?" I asked Vigot. "How did you know he was dead?" It was a foolish policeman's question, unworthy of the man who read Pascal. Pyle's body lies like a tray of ice deep in the Sureté, murdered near the bridge to Dakow where the far side on the river is in the hands of the Vietminh after dark. "Well he might have been murdered by the Vietminh. Or he might have been killed by the Vietnamese sureté - it's been known. Perhaps he was killed by the Caodists because he knew General Thé.
          Perhaps he was killed by General Thé because he knew the Caodists. Perhaps he was killed by the Hoa-Haos for making passes at the General's concubines. Perhaps he was killed by someone who wanted his money." "Or a simple case of jealousy," Vigot said. "Are you really looking for the people who killed him?" "No," Vigot said. "I'm just making a report, that's all. So long as it's an act of war - well, there are thousands killed every year." Later, back at his apartment, Fowler tries to break the news to Phuong. "Pyle est mort. Assassiné." There was no scene, no tears, just thought - the private thought of somebody who has to alter a whole course of life. "You had better stay here tonight," I said. Once again, after so many months I was not alone and yet I thought suddenly with anger, remembering Vigot and his eye-shade in the police station and the quiet corridors of the American Legation with no one about and the soft hairless skin under my hand. "Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?" And so Fowler begins to relate the story of his relationship with the young, idealistic Pyle who in innocence was so intent to do good. For his best friend's mistress, for Vietnam, for Democracy and for Freedom. For the whole world. As Fowler grimly recites, "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." The Book The Quiet American is a remarkably rich novel. It doesn't touch two-hundred pages but weaves themes and questions that are arguably more relevant today than in the 1950s when it was written. Chief among these is the degree to which we all hurt other peop
          le through our beliefs and the vain notion that we know what's best, not just for them but for all concerned. On the global level, and on the personal. This often takes the form of criticising American Interventionism, but I believe that the messages are deeper than any one particular time or culture. The story is told exquisitely, as I have tried to illustrate in these excerpts. There is hardly a wasted word yet a tremendous amount of colour and personality shine through. Somewhere on the cover of my copy Graham Greene is trumpeted as the greatest English writer of the Twentieth Century, and based on this novel I might well agree. The writing is very masculine, this is an observation, not a criticism. Francis Bacon might once have hoped to find out that Greene was homosexual, but it's clear to anyone who reads this book that the author is straight. I find the writing a joy to read, though I don't know if female readers would find so much to enjoy. It's not chauvinistic, but the male inability to understand women shows through, intentionally mixed up with westerners inability to understand the oriental. Some have proposed that the three main characters, Phuong, Fowler and Pyle represent Vietnam, Britain and America. Generally I resist this idea because I feel it diminishes the finely drawn, believable characters, but it does have a taste of truth. It's easy to see some national parallels in the tired pugnacious Fowler and idealistic naive Pyle. Phuong is more of a problem. She moves quietly through the story very much like Vietnam itself, allowing herself to be alternately loved or used by Westerners who can't help but project their own attitudes onto her, yet keeping herself intact. Whether this is representative of Vietnamese or simply Greene not understanding women, I can't say for certain. I know that he can write strong female characters and spent time with Vietnamese so I give him the benefit of the d
          oubt. My girlfriend is rather less philosophical on the issue, and insists that all the native girls want to do is marry a foreigner and get out of the country. She went on to tell me about a girl she knew long ago in Taiwan who married a GI without a second thought, only to find that when he left the army he took her back with him to his old job as a shoe shiner. This led her on to the tender tale of the Taiwanese and American students who had to walk on opposite sides of the road till they were far away from their college. Only then could they hold hands without risk of being recognised by anyone they knew. She is able to dismiss The Quiet American as a good story, but ultimately just a bunch of stuff that happened. If I could do the same I might not keep coming back to re-read it, to try to further triangulate the moral issues involved. Few readers can fail to collaborate with Fowler in the decisions he ultimately makes, but aren't my own views rather closer to those of Pyle's? Who but the simple or innocent would dare to quantify the 'necessary' of a necessary evil? But to choose not to do so is just as much to be 'engagé'. After all, I never believed in Weapons of Mass Destruction anyway, but choose that if blood had to be spilled then it should be on the battle-field, not in torture chambers. And an equal, tiny percentage of it is on my hands as those who didn't want it in their name. That, unfortunately, was never a choice on offer. In the time since reading The Quiet American, it has become one of my favourite novels, for the quality of its writing, the depth of its characters, the colour and flavour of Vietnam and for the fact that I've never been able to reconcile the moral ambiguity in the story. Looking back through this review, I notice that I've concentrated far more on my reaction to the book than the book itself. Partly this is because I've been trying to describe
          the story without giving anything away, and to resist the temptation to copy out my favourite paragraphs. If I did that, this review would be almost the length of its subject. Just one more. Nothing had changed since my last visit. The cat and the dog moved from floor to cardboard box to suitcase, like a couple of chess knights who cannot get to grips. The Film Not long after I read the novel, a film adaptation starring Michael Caine and Brendon Fraser was finally released. It had been held back from the previous year in view of the September 11th atrocities, and while I can appreciate that those events make the story more painful, they make the film still more relevant. The acting is very good, Caine is spot on for the role of Fowler and the beautiful landscape and culture of Vietnam shine through. The film is a strong adaptation of a complex plot but it's partly spoiled for me by the re-casting of Pyle as a benign James Bond villain. The damage that we cause in our innocence in the one of the story's pivots, but the pathos vanishes if the innocence was pretend all along. Pyle might stop to wipe blood off his shoe when faced with an atrocity but this is not a gesture of indifference, rather that he can't comprehend what he is seeing. "You can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity," Strangely, the film comes across as more anti-American than the book, and goes rather easy on the communists. Least the book describes some of their share of the war's atrocities. Also, it's perhaps the only film adaptation I can think of which ends more darkly than the novel upon which it's based. Maybe this is because in 1955 Greene thought he saw light at the end of the tunnel, but we have hindsight and if I had just now read Byron's words I would think them written yesterday.

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            16.08.2000 23:53
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            Set in the last years of French Indo-China (Vietnam), this is a story of dangerous idealism and betrayal. Graham Greene's tired narrator, an English journalist, encounters a naïve American, Pyle, whose dangerous enthusiasms draw them into the conflict. A generation before the American experience in Vietnam, it foreshadows the terrible price of commitment and intervention. The narrator has much in common with Greene's characters from other books. Tired, cynical and middle-aged, he is content to seek his own peace amid the conflict. But this complacency is shaken on meeting the young, idealistic Pyle, working as a liaison from the US embassy. This quiet American, by his support of local warlords and affection for the journalist’s mistress, forces him to become involved. The blend of tropical surroundings, dangerous idealism and world-weary cynicism is classic Greene, and this is one of his best. He experienced the situation himself, and ably depicts all its details.

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