In Chennai, in perhaps the most organized bookstore that I’ve encountered in India, I came across Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a novel that knew of but had never read. I’d see a screen adaptation with Michael Caine as the lead character Fowler, but other than imagining Caine as Fowler when reading the novel, I don’t have much recollection of the film or recall it having been compelling. But the book is compelling.
Written between 1953 and 1955, as Indochina (Vietnam) slipped through the grasping fingers of the dying French Empire, the intrepid world-traveler Greene explored the world of the Vietnam, and in writing this novel he foreshadowed the upcoming American involvement. Greene brings America into Vietnam at this very early date in the person of a young man named Pyle. Pyle, fresh from Massachusetts, Harvard, and full of ideas from books, comes in to change Viet Nam, to change it so that it does not embrace the Communist Viet Minh and nor cling to the French colonialists. Pyle imports a belief in a “Third Way” toward “Democracy”. Pyle and Fowler, an older English journalist who is “not involved” in Vietnam but reports on it to his paper back in England, serve as anti-types of one another. Pyle exhibits the naiveté of the American mentality and Fowler the cynicism of the waning European empires. Between them, they also have the enigmatic young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, Fowler’s hope of love and comfort, whom Pyle falls for as well, with all of his youth and innocence.
A trip to Greeneland finds men (mostly men) living on the edges of war and society, but for all of the searching, we find few heroes or villains. Instead, we find flawed, needy, and puzzled human beings, attending to everything from drink to women to God; sometimes with insight, sometimes in despair. Greene draws his readers into this world so that they feel the fear and uncertainty of his characters.
However, I should add that while a sense of gloom or despair often mark Greene’s setting, he also displays gems of comedy and social caricature. Greene’s perceptions of Pyle and the other Americans poke a great deal of fun at us, but not without cause, I fear. These moments of levity help keep the reader from falling too deeply into the flawed world and characters that Greene features.
Did any of the American decision-makers of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations read this novel before taking us so deeply into Vietnam? One wonders what might have happened if JFK had read this novel, or anyone in power with the perspective to see the perils into which we as a nation had ventured. We Americans have a lot of “Pyle” in us, or at least we did back then, when our government, full of adventurers and idealists, thought that it could change the world into our image for it. After Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, perhaps we’ve outgrown that perspective. I’m not sure, but I hope so.
One can’t leave a Greene novel such as this one without a sense of human frailty and shortcoming and an immense compassion despite it all. If this is in some sense what Greene sought to achieve, then he was one of the most successful of novelists in the 20th century.
The Vintage Greene addition that I read includes an introduction written by Zadie Smith that I highly recommend.