The problem is the work as a whole, and particularly its Message – not the content, but its ubiquity. Greene was inspired to write The Quiet American following a conversation with an American aid worker (that aid worker was channelled into Pyle’s obsession with a ‘Third Force’ to solve the impasse between France and Vietnam), and it’s really a lengthy riposte to that view. More than half a century on it feels very dated, not to mention a little baffling at times to anyone not well-versed in the conflict.
In other books Greene has been able to keep the moral questions – most famously around religion –in the background for flavour, but he does have a habit of letting them flood forth, and here it’s to his detriment. It wasn’t until around three-quarters of the way through that I realised there was intended to be a murder mystery, so uninvolving was the plot, and by the end I felt like I’d made the mistake of offhandedly challenging a politico only to receive an unending repudiatory diatribe.
Ultimately, The Quiet American isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to be. Is it a murder mystery? Is it a love story? Is it a clandestine thriller? Or is it just a polemic? Whatever it is, there are better examples of all three, and certainly better introductions to a writer who at his best was the most incisive British author of the 20th century.
For anyone with any familiarity with Graham Greene’s work, the elements of Greeneland are unmistakable: whether it’s in wartime London, the south coast of England, colonial Africa, or an Argentinian town, the dialogue is bare, the measures are generous, and the moral heat is sweltering.
These characteristics are all present in Greene’s The Quiet American - the crucible here is 1950s Vietnam, where British foreign correspondent Fowler finds himself posted to cover the French intervention. In the first chapter we’re introduced to the titular character, Pyle – or more accurately, we’re told of his death. The rest of the novel is an extended flashback, covering idealistic Pyle’s ill-fated and shady involvement in the war and Fowler’s love life.
Ah yes – it wouldn’t be a Graham Greene novel without a pained love affair. Here it’s Pyle and Fowler’s gentlemanly tussle over Phuong, a young Vietnamese who dreams of “XXX”. One of the major criticisms levelled at Greene’s work is his flat depiction of women, and in this case it’s entirely justified. To say that Phuong is passive is an understatement; she seems to exist only to fix Fowler an opium pipe or three and to play the part of her country in the analogy that runs through each page. It’s a shame, as by robbing the Pyle-Fowler-Phuong triangle of one of its sides, the book loses a lot of its interest, and Fowler’s musings aren’t quite perceptive enough to carry it.
Reading this novel in the early 21st Century, it’s a little hard to keep in mind that this all takes place before the Vietnam war ‘proper’ began. It’s an angry book, and unfortunately that anger overwhelms the story. Its set pieces feel like exactly that, and are strangely divorced from the more reflective and revealing interaction between Pyle and Fowler (Pyle’s awkward insistence on playing fair even as he tries to steal Phuong from Fowler is particularly well done). Greene’s eye for psychology is still keen, though – he finds his scabs accurately – and on a sentence-by-sentence level it’s a perfectly good book.
Graham Greene
Reviewed by Jamie Thunder
Vhcle Books, Issue 14
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Jamie Thunder is Vhcle's books editor, and he works, reads and writes in the South of England. When he's not doing any of these he runs long distances, and is always very relieved when he's got to the end.
Read other articles by Jamie Thunder
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