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Graham Greene: The Quiet American

This is Greene’s Vietnam novel, written between 1952 and 1955, when the French were still fighting there and, nominally, before the American involvement. I say nominally but, as the title implies, the Americans were, of course involved and Greene shows considerable prescience by describing how the Americans did things badly, despite their naïve faith in the righteousness of their cause and how they were just as much the bad guys as the French, the Communists and the warlords. The novel is narrated by an English journalist, Thomas Fowler (only the Americans don’t call him Fowler). The Quiet American is Alden Pyle (only the Americans don’t call him Pyle) who earns his nickname as he is far less brash and noisy than his compatriots. However, it is clear that Greene also intended the nickname to be a reference to his surreptitious meddling in Vietnamese politics.

Fowler may be said to be your typical English journalist. He does drugs (opium) and drinks. He is lazy. He is extremely cynical. He has a Vietnamese girlfriend (Phuong), though he has a wife back in England, who won’t divorce him for religious reasons. He is practical and down-to-earth. He doesn’t get involved in politics, except, of course, for when he does and that means when it involves real people. Pyle is the opposite. He is idealistic, basing his views on the (fictitious) York Harding’s Third Way (the similarity to Tony Blair does not end there). He is interested in Phuong (and ends up stealing her from Fowler) but wants to do the decent thing, i.e. marry her and take her home to meet Mom. He is hard-working and rarely drinks. And he very much gets involved in politics.

At the beginning of the novel, Pyle is found dead in the river. The question in the novel is how much did Fowler know and how was he involved. Much of the novel is told in flashback with the evolving relationship between the two men as well as Pyle’s successful attempt to steal Phuong from Fowler. They twice travel out into the countryside, almost getting killed. Pyle, officially with the Economic Mission, is clearly up to something involving plastics and Fowler, with the help of his assistant, Dominguez, an Indian, sniffs around. As with other Greene novels, both the men are fish out of water in a strange country, neither fully understanding the local politics or Phuong. Pyle’s death shows that it is Fowler who has made the best job of understanding.

As always, Greene tells an excellent tale. Indeed, it was considered such a good novel, that it has been filmed twice. As a subdued piece of anti-Americanism, well before its time, it works well. In contrast to Pyle, we also have a couple of more stereotypical Americans in the journalist Granger and Pyle’s colleague, Joe (whose last name Fowler can never remember). Like Pyle, they do not meet with Greene’s favour. Indeed, it seems that Greene is more sympathetic to the French as well as to the Vietnamese communists, well aware what US involvement in Vietnam will mean for the Vietnamese. And he also tells a good story.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by Heinemann