Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Quiet American

by Pa Rock

I bought a copy of Graham Greene's The Quiet American from a young street vendor in Hanoi.  I just finished the relatively small novel this week and wish that I had read it prior to going to Vietnam.  It gives such a poignant (and I suspect very accurate) portrayal of what was occurring in that war-ravaged country in the 1950's - before the United States got itself completely pulled into the quagmire of a war that we had no hope of winning.  The author lived and worked in Saigon and Hanoi during the early 1950's - the same time that he was writing this book.

The Quiet American is the fictional story of two men who meet while working in Vietnam, and the young Vietnamese woman they both covet.  Thomas Fowler (like the book's author) is a crusty and cynical British journalist who understands the futility of war and of trying to bring the abstract concept of democracy to a people whose main focus in life is growing enough rice to survive.   Fowler is married to a Catholic woman in England who will not give him a divorce, and he is living with the beautiful Phuong in Saigon who dutifully fills his opium pipes each evening and dreams of being the second Mrs. Fowler.

Alden Pyle is a bright, young, "quiet" American who grew up in a Bostonian family of privilege.  He arrives in Saigon ostensibly working as an economic attache, but it is quickly obvious to the other foreign denizens of the city (as well as to the reader) that he is actually there as a CIA operative.  Pyle tries to build a friendship with Fowler, but that effort becomes strained as he quickly begins to fall in love with Fowler's woman, the beautiful Phuong.

Pyle, the spy, has read books on Vietnam written by a man who had only been there briefly, but from his reading he has determined that the best approach to winning the country over for eventual democracy is to support a "third force" which would counteract both the Communist Vietminh as well as the military of the French colonial power.  He forms an alliance with a corrupt general and instigates some violence that results in the suffering and deaths of many civilians.   Pyle believes that those who died in the acts of violence that he orchestrated were martyrs and had died for democracy - whether that was their intent or not.

Fowler is the tough guy without a gun who knows the true costs of war.  Pyle is the heavily armed choir boy who does not.

Alden Pyle is murdered very early on in the story, and the remainder of the novel looks back at his interactions with the Vietnamese and particularly with Thomas Fowler and Phuong.  The Quiet American is, on one level, a fictional murder mystery, and on another level it is a story of the actual death of the idealism that America brought forward out of World War II.

The Quiet American hit a nerve with America's espionage community which began tracking Graham Greene shortly after this novel was released in the United States.  Our spooks continued to follow his movements for four more decades until the author's death.  That alone should stand as testimony to the book's authenticity.  It is a very disturbing tale, one that still haunts me several days after putting it down.

1 comment:

Don said...

When, more years ago than I care to remember, I read this book for the first time, I was intrigued. The second time, I was annoyed until about the middle of the book and angry by the time I got to the end.

Thanks for reminding us of an absolute classic that, as you say, should have been required reading for anyone in a position of influence in Vietnam all those years ago.