The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955)

‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.’ (p.20)

Page for page I think this is the most effective of Greene’s books (up to this point in his career). The plot is taut and neat, the Catholic theologising which mars his other books is kept to a minimum – but it is the writing, the precision and accuracy and evocativeness of the words and sentences and paragraphs on page after page, which make this the Greene novel I’d most recommend to people who’d never read one.

Backdrop

Vietnam, 1952. Colonial masters, the French, are struggling to contain the campaign by Ho Chi Minh’s communist army to expel them. There are organised attacks on outlying regions accompanied by terrorist attacks (hand grenades, bombings) in the major cities, Hanoi and Saigon. It’s a complicated situation, though, because there are numerous smaller armies with their own nationalist or religious causes. Already there are several hundred US ‘advisors’ in the country, managing the in-flow of arms and other resources, ostensibly to help the French, but also pursuing their own agenda of seeking to build up a ‘third force’, a nationalist political force which will kick out the French, establish independence, but reject and defeat the communists.

In Saigon, the small world of journalists, diplomats, advisers and so on all know each other, drink together, exchange gossip and bitch about each other. The main characters are:

  • Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist, an old Vietnam hand who knows all about opium, brothels, the etiquette of Vietnamese society, and the complexity of the political situation. A confirmed atheist, he’s separated from his religious wife back in England and has a Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, who would like his wife to divorce him, so she can become the second Mrs Fowler! The story is narrated by this fallible, biased source.
  • Alden Pyle, a young, fresh-faced, crew-cut, idealistic, virginal Boston American who joins the US ‘Economic Mission’ but everyone knows he’s got additional, ‘secret’, responsibilities.
  • Phuong, beautiful Vietnamese woman who has become Fowler’s mistress, prepares his opium pipes, creates domestic and order and peace around him.

Plot

Pyle’s arrival starts the plot. His naiveté is contrasted with the crudeness and vulgarity of the other American correspondents and military men, who drink heavily, insult the natives, visit the brothels and boast about it. Pyle stands out from the first for being that rare thing, a quiet American. He is on a naive mission to ‘save’ the world. He has read books about south-east Asia and democracy. A troupe of them get drunk and go to an industrial-scale brothel where the other Yanks get laid but Pyle’s new England Puritanism is appalled. He is enchanted by Fowler’s mistress and high-mindedly determines to save her from this married, drunk Brit, marry her and take her home.

Fowler goes visiting different parts of the scattered ‘front’ against the Viet Minh and (slightly improbably) Pyle turns up in both places. This enables dialogues where Pyle everso decently announces he is going to take Phuong off Fowler and ‘do the decent thing by her’, and Fowler and Pyle to act out their roles of cynical old hand and innocent idealist.

Flashback

As with the End of The Affair there is a sophisticated use of a multi-layered timeframe. Essentially, the story is told in flashback and so we know within a few pages of the start that Pyle is dead. Briefly, Fowler is enraged on a personal level by Pyle’s guileless theft of his mistress, and his innocent expectation that Fowler will continue to be friends with him.

But in the last 40 pages or so we see the practical impact Pyle’s idealism is starting to have. One of his contacts in the Vietnamese/Chinese underworld is almost certainly a communist sympathiser and he shows Fowler barrels full of a sort of plastic flour substance and moulds. Soon afterwards bombs shaped like bicylce pumps on bicycles around Saigon explode, injuring passersby. Fowler realises that Pyle is working to create a ‘third force’ in Vietnam. Fowler argues directly with Pyle that the chosen man, one General Thé, is just a bandit with a few thousand followers, but for Pyle – indoctrinated by his Harvard courses and idealistic lecturers – he can be the leader who saves South-East Asia for Democracy.

Things come to a head when Fowler notices people leaving a bar he’s in, looking at their watches and muttering about ‘time to leave’, then, minutes later, a massive car bomb goes off in a main Saigon square. As Fowler stumbles through the debris, noting the man blown in half and the baby ripped to pieces, he (very conveniently) bumps into Pyle, who is also shocked and muttering that this wasn’t supposed to happen, the bomb was meant to hit a big military parade and discredit the communists, with a view to rallying support for his General Thé. Fowler is outraged. It’s one thing being an idealistic young puppy; it’s another conniving with terrorists to blow up women and children.

So that when he meets his probably-communist contact a few days later, he falls in with their suggestion that he lure Pyle to a restaurant right on the edge of the Secure Zone. With all kinds of misgivings and reeking of bad faith and almost not going through with it – Fowler does go through with it, invites Pyle to dinner, Pyle never shows at the restaurant, and his body is found the next day.

The (tired, jaded) French police sniff around Fowler a little but then give up. They’re as relieved as Fowler to have Pyle out of the way. Phuong returns to Fowler. And the novel ends as he opens a telegram from his wife saying she is relenting and granting him a divorce. He has everything he wants. Why, then, does he feel so wretched? (Because he’s a Graham Greene hero, silly.)

Anti-American

No wonder this novel got so many American reviewers’ and journalists’ backs up. It is really a hymn to how ill-conceived, ignorant and harmful naive American do-goodism is in a world far more complex than their culture prepares them for. In some interviews and letters Greene explained that one purpose of The Heart of The Matter was to show how destructive an emotion pity is. In that book it destroys one man – the main character, Scobie. This novel expands the scope to show how unintentionally destructive an entire foreign policy (American foreign policy) can become which is based on an idealistic and unrealistic sense of pity, a naive wish ‘to help’, ungrounded by experience.

Beyond the character of Pyle himself, the other Yanks, as a group, are described as loud-mouthed, drunk, vulgar, tremendously rude and crude. They are epitomised by the figure of Granger, the drunk, boastful foreign correspondent who files fire-breathing reports without actually going to the scenes of any events, delights in embarrassing the authorities at press conferences, is always drinking and boasting in bars, and on the look-out for women, whores, ‘tail’.

Throughout the text the narrator loses no opportunity not only to criticise the American characters in front of him but almost every aspect of American life. He particularly dislikes their gadget culture, the fridges and air conditioning, the cellophane-wrapped food. Pyle is pilloried for eating his vacuum-sealed Vit-health sandwiches at a restaurant when everyone else is eating the local dishes.

There is also, of course, an undercurrent of rivalry between the sinking Imperial power, Britain, and rising new superpower, America.

Is confidence based on rates of exchange? We used to speak of sterling qualities. Have we got now to talk about a dollar love? A dollar love, of course, would include marriage and Junior and Mother’s Day, even though later it might include Reno or the Virgin Islands or wherever they go nowadays for their divorces. A dollar love had good intentions, a clear conscience, and to hell with everybody. (Penguin paperback edition, p.63)

Terrific scenes

As with all Greene’s novels, The Quiet American is divided very precisely into books (four in this instance) which are sub-divided into chapters which are sub-divided into scenes. It is interesting to speculate whether the experience of writing and helping to produce a stage play (The Living Room, 1953) resulted in the taut feel to all the scenes in this novel and the precision, the pithiness, the effectiveness of the dialogue.

  • Scenes: Fowler goes to the village of Phat Diem, and then beyond it to a scattering of farmhouses where he joins a French patrol, crossing canals full of dead bodies. Later, he visits Tanyin for the religious festival, then gets caught in an army watchtower when his car runs out of gas, as night falls and the Viet Minh sneak closer. In a third gripping episode, Fowler is taken out on a ‘vertical bombing’ mission ie in a French plane which repeatedly bombs a village in the north. Norman Sherry’s biography of Greene confirms that all three scenes are based on Greene’s actual experiences reporting for Life magazine. They are terrifically described.
  • Dialogue Snappy and pithy. In earlier novels characters are wont to make long speeches. Here they genuinely converse. An indication of this is the appearance of Wit. Fowler is consistently sarcastic, making rude, impertinent and sly comments in reply to the Americans’ crudities or Pyle’s naivety or, sometimes, to the French police enquiries. There is more back-chat. You can imagine it translating easily into movie dialogue.

Religion and relationships

Alas, religion rears its ugly head. Fowler’s wife back in England is a High Church Anglican, as he explains to an uncomprehending Phuong, which explains why she refuses to grant him a divorce (until right at the end). Fowler basks in guilt at having deserted his wife for one mistress, and then deserting her for Phuong in Vietnam. Norman Sherry’s biography recounts in great detail how Greene abandoned his wife of 18 years to live with his mistress in London during the Blitz, before dumping her in favour of the Great Love of his Life around 1948. Ie the dynamic of Fowler’s fictional relationships exactly mirrors Greene’s own situation and the sense, and sometimes the phrasing, of these sections of the novel closely echo Greene’s actual letters, diary entries and so on quoted in the biography. It is all heavily recycled from his own life.

I read the words in these sections, and registered the precision with which they convey a morass of misery but, after reading the biography, I personally am sick of Greene’s shabby love life and the endless excuses he makes for his behaviour, to himself and everyone around him. Therefore this aspect – the relationship aspect – of the novel made no impact on me.

  • First and foremost it is a marvellous evocation of the tragic country of Vietnam at a specific historical moment, along with the sights and sounds and smells of its cities and countryside.
  • Second, it is a fascinating and prophetic document of what 1950s anti-Americanism sounds like, what arguments and sarcasms and sneers it used to make its case.
  • Third, it is a slightly creaking thriller-style plot – bombs, spies, assassination – but infinitely more plausible and crafted than any of the popular ‘entertainments’ he’d written up to this point.
  • Fourth, there is a steady flow of platitudes and verbiage about wives and lovers and mistresses and love and sex and why do we make the ones we love so unhappy, and so on, which I skimmed.
  • Lastly, despite making an obvious attempt to write a non-Catholic novel (after the orgies of Catholic guilt which are The Heart of The Matter and The End of The Affair) Greene can’t help slipping in quite a few references to God, ‘do you believe, no I’m not a believer, and yet I found myself praying to something I don’t believe in’ etc. which are irrelevant to the plot and so the reader can take or leave according to taste.

Related links

The movie

Showing that Greene’s stories still have relevance, the book was made into a 2002 movie, directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, and Do Thi Hai Yen. As all films do, this one simplifies and exaggerates the text, but in doing so makes a number of themes clearer.

The third force led by its General Thé is much more obvious: they have a military parade through Saigon (not in the novel), Fowler interviews a testy General Thé (not in the novel), Fowler sees General Thé himself in the warehouse where the explosive components are being stored (not in the novel). These changes make the movie conform to standard thriller stereoypes – making the baddies much more obvious and sinister. General Thé could come from a Die Hard or Bond movie.

Similarly, the script makes Pyle’s role bigger and simpler: Fowler realises that Pyle is actually in charge of the operation to build up the third force and, in a key confrontation, directly blames Pyle for the deaths in the car bombs and Pyle, in reply, is clearer than his counterpart in the book about the need to stop and contain communism in Vietnam, to use the people you’ve got to hand, and that’s why the Americans have to get in bed with Thé.

The film also brings out more clearly that everything revolves around Fowler’s decision to betray Pyle to what he knows is a certain death. In the novel lots of other scenes are more interesting and better written. The movie strips those away to focus on the moments when Fowler makes the decision, inviting Pyle to a dinner date he’ll never make, showing us Fowler’s face as he signals to the communist agent out in the square that the deal has been done, closing in on Michael Caine’s eyes as he makes a decision he knows he’ll have to live with for the rest of his life.

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.
Advertisements
Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. The link to “The Human Factor” does not work. Can this be fixed?

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: