This is not Graham Greene’s best work but even subpar writing from Graham Greene will have something worthwhile to it.
The narrator of this novel is Fowler, a British journalist, stationed in Vietnam. The Quiet American was first published in 1955 so this isn’t the Vietnam that many of us in the West might think of. This is Vietnam at the end of French colonialism, French rule breaking down and the beginnings of American involvement that would eventually lead to what we know as the Vietnam War. As a Brit, Fowler is somewhat more distanced from the politics involved and as a journalist he does his best to stay neutral.
Fowler has been in Vietnam for some years and has no plans or desire to return to England. He’s a middle-aged man, with a history behind him. He lives with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, who he cares about but is unable to marry because his Catholic wife in England refuses to divorce him. Fowler spends much of his personal time in an opium-induced stupor and cares very little for the events unfolding in Vietnam around him. The overall impression given of Fowler is of a man numbed by his own past. Once he was filled with emotions, had passionate affairs, cared about things. It has become an act of self-preservation to shut off this part of himself and to live a life where very little is required of him. Phuong knows he cannot marry her or take her away from Vietnam but he provides her some safety and security in an unstable nation.
Things begin to change for Fowler when he meets Alden Pyle, a young American official. Pyle is everything Fowler is not – brash and full of confidence. He read some books about Asia and is convinced that he knows exactly what Vietnam needs. He has no self-doubt and views the world in a completely black-and-white manner. Very quickly, Pyle sets his sights on Phuong and wants her for his own. Although Pyle likes and admires Fowler, he believes that Phuong will be better off with him because he can marry her and Fowler cannot.
In nearly the opening of the book we learn that Pyle has been killed and Phuong has returned from living with Pyle to be with Fowler again. Everything we learn about Fowler and Pyle’s relationship is told from this perspective and with the knowledge of Pyle’s death. We learn more about what exactly Pyle’s role for the American government is and we watch Fowler grapple with the limits of his own neutrality.
As with Greene’s best novels, The Quiet American is at its best in its examination of human nature. What can a person convince themselves of? Can one ever be truly neutral? How much can one person take before self-preservation demands a shutdown? On the other hand, Fowler as a character never quite becomes someone I truly cared about. He’s so shut down that even as a first person narrator it never feels like we get inside of him. Pyle reads more as a caricature which, considering we only see him through Fowler’s eyes, may be intentional. Still, it makes it hard to care about him either.
The major flow though of the novel is in its depictions of women and the Vietnamese people. Aside from Phuong, there are almost no Vietnamese characters. All the people of power, all the people Fowler and Pyle deem worthy of authority are French or British or American. More than once Fowler refers to the Vietnamese people as child-like. Even Phuong, one of the main characters and the woman at the centre of it all, is given no agency. We hardly hear her speak and neither man seems to know anything about her or care for her as a person. She is passed back and forth between them like an object and at no point does there seem to be any consideration of her preferences or desires. I could believe that Phuong is a woman who loves neither man and is instead choosing the best position of power and safety for herself. To me, that would be an interesting story. Surely, she would have her own opinions on the colonization of her country and these foreigners who have come in, believing they know best. None of that is on display here. I’d like to believe that’s a narrative choice to show Fowler’s ignorance but there’s no hint in the entire book that Greene himself sees Phuong as anything more than an object. Again, this made it hard for me to care for or sympathize with either Fowler or Pyle.
As I said, there are glimpses of Greene’s brilliance but at its best The Quiet American reminded me of The Heart of the Matter and definitely suffered by comparison.