Evan Soltas
Mar 8, 2012

Book Review

Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955)

I read this book with a little apprehension, knowing well that it was not well received by American audiences for its less-than-flattering portrayal of Alden Pyle, a young and naïve American economic aid representative in Vietnam at the end of the French occupation of Indochina. Pyle, in a not-so-undercover fashion, is working to establish a "Third Force" in Vietnam to establish a pro-American, anti-French, and anti-communist when he falls in love with Phuong, the Vietnamese love interest of Thomas Fowler, a jaded British journalist. The reader learns at the beginning of the book that Pyle has been murdered, but not why -- and through a series of flashbacks, going through war zones and moments of civil society, one learns that Fowler conspires to kill Pyle to prevent him from destabilizing the country after he arranges for a bombing in Saigon.

The novel's political tilt shouldn't deter you from reading this. First, it is impeccably well written -- Greene's style is smooth and natural, yet crisp and powerful when it needs to be. Here's a sampling of Greene at his best, speaking what is largely his own cynicism through Fowler:

[H]e was determined--I learnt that very soon--to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve. (10)

I could have never been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity. (36)

Is confidence based on a rate of exchange? We used to talk about sterling qualities. Have we got to talk now about a dollar love?...A dollar love had good intentions, a clear conscience, and to Hell with everybody. (54)

We make a cage for air with holes [a church], I thought, and man makes a cage for his religion in much the same way--with doubts left open to the weather and creeds opening on innumerable interpretations. (79)

Second, I think the response to this book today would be very different, colored by the war in Vietnam for older readers, but by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for my generation. In short, I think it's much harder for Americans to sympathize with Pyle's innocence--to see themselves in him--than they might have during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. At that point Greene's portrayal would have been too close for comfort.

I dug up The New York Times' original review of the book, which was highly political:

It is a political novel -- or parable -- about the war in Indochina, employing its characters less as individuals than as representatives of their nations or political factions...[the plot events] are all subordinate to the political thesis which they dramatize and which is stated baldly and explicitly throughout the book...[S]ocial or national issues have never been argued for their own sake. In "The Quiet American" the effect of circumstances is specifically ideological and political...[Fowler] is moved by his hatred of the Americans...If much of the description of Indochina at war is written with Greene's great technical skill and imagination, his caricatures of American types are often as crude and trite as those of Jean Paul Sartre. He is not ashamed as an artist to content himself with the picture of America made so familiar by French neutralism; the picture of a civilization composed exclusively of chewing gum, napalm bombs, deodorants, Congressional witch-hunts, celery wrapped in cellophane, and a naive belief in one's own superior virtue...There is no real debate in the book, because no experienced and intelligent anti-Communist is represented there...Graham Greene grants primary justice to the Communist cause in Asia, and finds insupportable its resistance under the leadership of America.
This is so far from my own reading of it today. Yes, Greene's political views seep into Fowler; yes, the book is arguably sympathetic to the Communist takeover of Vietnam and critical of American intervention, and particularly the way it was conducted. And yet, today, the character of Pyle seems less a caricature of the American than a merited warning of the dangers of ideological adventurism in international affairs, and how the innocent can be routinely outmaneuvered by the cynical and the observant. It strikes me, in other words, as much less anti-American, and much more of an indictment of the attitude held by Americans at this time, one of blithe disregard for complexity and bravado on the international stage. My own perspective, of course, is informed by an understanding of a history Americans in 1956 could not yet have -- the consequences of a "Pyle" foreign policy. Now that the anti-Americanism seems more watered down, I found it easier to appreciate the strength of plot, and even see depth and elegance in Greene's characterization of Fowler and Pyle.

With this view of Greene's polemical side, The Quiet American is arguably a more rewarding and engaging read for the modern reader today than in 1956.