Quiet American, The
Contradicting its title, this novel is at once surprising and disquieting. Despite its understated language and supremely “British” tone, it is quite a searing indictment of war in general, the Vietnam conflict in specific, and, even more specifically, the U.S. role. Greene is amazingly prescient with the latter idea, forecasting not only the idealistic motives for U.S. involvement in Vietnam but also the disastrous results in store, doing so almost a decade before full escalation from the U.S.
The impact of the book is similar to having a bunch of drinks at a table without interruption, only to realize how drunk you are once you stand up to walk to the bathroom. The sterile narrative has a rather anesthetic effect; it’s quite easy to underappreciate the power behind it, but there’s a wallop if you’re receptive to it.
It did, however, take a while to grow on me. It was difficult to understand the import of what I was reading. By the end you realize how dense it is, how thoroughly packed with vital details each line. But the first time through, I really didn’t get interested until Part 2. And only by the end of Part 3 did I realize I was dealing, on some level, with a mystery story, one interspersed with many poetic descriptions and caustic insights. Upon completion, a re-reading of the 1st chapter is highly rewarding.
Fowler is, of course, a coward, which he justifies by telling himself he’s trying to stay objective and uninvolved. This strategy does not appear to have worked well for him overall, given his current state of mind, yet we can’t really expect him to change either, despite a brief and precipitous alignment with one of the factions at the end.
The novel is perhaps most obviously seen as an allegory, with Fowler’s snobbish, British cynicism, the Frenchmen’s casual, regretful cruelty toward the Vietnamese, Pyle’s naïve, dangerous idealism a stand-in for the U.S., and Phuong, the unknowable, alien Oriental who is passed between the nationalities without any apparent will of her own. It succeeds on this level as well as many others — Greene is too good a writer to limit himself to a shallow fable.
And honestly, while I understand the criticism of anti-Americanism the book apparently suffered upon its release, I don’t agree with it. After all, it’s indisputable that the U.S. exacerbated an existing mess with its involvement in Vietnam. Greene was just one of the first to call it what it was. And he did so in perhaps the most comprehensive and compassionate way possible, by ascribing to them the sincere — and as a result, even more dangerous — desire to help. He mentions Pyle’s innocence repeatedly, but does not allow it to serve as excuse. I can’t actually imagine how Greene could have given a more sympathetic portrayal of the U.S. role in Vietnam and still maintained fidelity to the truth.
I’m going to leave it here, just because if I start quoting beautiful and/or poignant passages I might end up transcribing half the book. I will say that my 2nd Greene novel, like The Power and the Glory (see my review), will most likely stay with me for quite a while. It’s another unique aspect of Greene’s understated-ness, that his words and stories haunt you long after you’ve read them. I will some day read more of those words.