The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Vintage Digital| Oct 2010| 210 pages| my own copy| 4*

I heard of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American years ago. So when it was on offer for 99p at Amazon three years ago I bought the e-book version, with an Introduction by Zadie Smith. It’s one of the BBC’s 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. The nudge to read it now came from FictionFan’s Wanderlust Bingo as it fits nicely into the Southeast Asia Square as it is set in Vietnam * (see below). I don’t think I’ve read anything set in Vietnam before so I enjoyed it for its setting in Saigon and a glimpse of the situation in Vietnam under French colonialism in the early 1950s.

There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American. (Extract from Zadie Smith’s Introduction)

The Quiet American was first published in 1955 and is about America’s early involvement in Vietnam. It’s only the second book of Greene’s that I’ve read. The main characters are a cynical British journalist, Thomas Fowler, Phuong, a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman who lives with him, and Alden Pyle, a young and idealistic American – the ‘Quiet American,’ of the title. Phuong’s sister is keen for her and Fowler to marry, but he has a wife in England, who won’t agree to a divorce. Matters between all three characters come to a head when Pyle falls in love with Phuong and wants to marry her.

The book begins with a death and then goes back to the events that led up to that death. Although there is plenty of action the book revolves around these three characters and their relationships. Fowler is tired and jaded, addicted to opium and the thought of losing Phuong forces him to face the possibility of a lonely and bleak future. She meets his needs and prepares his opium pipes for him. Pyle, on the other hand is bright, confident and optimistic, certain that he can offer Phuong a better future.

The Americans at this time were not actively involved in the war against the Vietminh and Pyle has been sent to promote democracy and combat communism through a mysterious ‘Third Force’. However he is naive and gets involved in violent action causing injury and death to many innocent people. At that point Fowler realises he has to intervene.

*I know very little about Vietnam and its history, before the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and was a little confused about what was happening during the period in which this book is set and the references to the Vietminh. So, I had to look it up – In the late 19th century Vietnam was controlled by the French. In September 1945 the Nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed its independence. From 1946 to 1954, the French opposed independence, and Ho Chi Minh led guerrilla warfare against them in the first Indochina War that ended in the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954. (see Britannica)