Review by Gabriel
In The Quiet American, Graham Greene has some meaty themes to work with – colonialism; the clash of east and west; the dangers of idealism – which he explores by creating an interesting dichotomy that is embodied in the two main characters. He writes in a simple, direct way that is typical of 20th century North American authors. It has a lot of the ingredients of books that I like. Instead, it left me cold thanks to its bland characters and some mediocre writing.
The novel opens with a murder. Fowler, a veteran journalist covering the Franco-Vietnam War, is taken by the French police to identify the body of Pyle, the titular “Quiet American”, an idealistic young employee of the Economic Aid Mission who, having been inspired by his favourite college author, decides to incite a “Third Force” in the war. Not content to merely bait two warring armies, Pyle also steals Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress Phuong, an action that may prove far more dangerous.
The mystery of the novel is not whether Pyle was eliminated for his government work, but what part Fowler played in his death. The truth is revealed not in sudden, shocking revelations, but gradually. Because it’s a first person narrative told in retrospect, all the clues are there from the start and it‘s pretty easy to guess where the story is going. The tale is modest in scale, focused more on the love triangle with the war only serving as a back drop. Maybe this is the reason that, even though the book is shorter than 200 pages, it feels drawn-out.
It is not only surprisingly uneventful, but the main characters lack depth and the relationships between them are unengaging. Fowler is a typical, almost cliché, detached narrator – a world weary expat reporter with a local mistress and an opium habit. He is likable for his sharp observations, his down-to-earth humanistic philosophy and his self-awareness. It is this latter trait that proves problematic for Greene to maintain, for in order to draw out the mystery the author must have the protagonist avoid his own culpability in Pyle’s death.
The attachment he forms with Pyle, too, seems at odds with his temperament: the reader is told that they like each other, but a connection between them is never convincingly established. Pyle is a wide eyed college graduate, assured of his book learning and American values, over eager to save Vietnam for democracy; the polar opposite of the worldly, cynical Fowler, who is committed to inaction. After only two meetings, Pyle, driven by a trumped up sense of honour and a need to alleviate his guilty conscience, follows Fowler into a war zone to inform him that he has fallen in love with Fowler’s mistress and intends to pursue her. Even without the personal affront, Fowler should detest him. And yet, we are supposed to believe that Fowler cares for him in some abstract way.
The third member of the love triangle, Phuong, is intentionally undefined. She is seemingly cold and pragmatic, switching lovers as the wind changes. Greene intends her as a symbol of the unfathomable nature of her country and its people, but it also means that readers are unlikely to relate to her.
In terms of writing style, Greene uses admirably simple, grammatically accurate sentences. The Quiet American’s structure is also accomplished. But the prose lacks the energy or Hemingway and the descriptions lack poetry. My biggest criticism would be Greene’s tendency to use redundant phrases:
In the above example, the event speaks for itself. Greene demonstrates many times that Fowler hates war; he doesn’t need to beat the reader over the head with it, and he cheapens the moment by having Fowler reduce his horror into such a direct phrase. The book is littered with these kind of statements, many of which are corny.
Still, my own copy of The Quiet American contains many underlined passages, usually of Fowler’s insights into Vietnam and war. Despite its flaws, The Quiet American is a solid book, and worth reading, but more for its political commentary than its strength as a piece of fiction.