The Quiet American

quiet-american
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

I really loved Graham Greene’s The Quiet American even though the tone and the main character so differed from favorites like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Gaskell’s Margaret Hale or any 19th century novel that I treasure.

Yes, the two world wars left a stamp of jaundice and cynicism on Europe and Greene shows that (in many of his works). Yet I think he’s insightful and observant. Somehow while the main character Fowler, cynical, selfish and tapped out, earned my sympathy because he was honest with himself. I guess the similar sorts I’ve run across aren’t.

I like how Greene plays Fowler’s cynicism off Pyle’s (the chatty, “Quiet” American) innocence. By connecting them through Phuong, Fowler’s mistress whom Pyle falls for and takes. Through Phuong we see the the West’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Pyle sincerely and innocently loves her. He deals with Fowler, who offers Phuong so little. She’s like a servant and whose job could end whenever he’s called back.

Fowler lies to her, has cheated on his wife and while I didn’t like or respect him, he was the most perceptive observer in the book. He saw how flimsy and immature Pyle’s views on democracy, world affairs and Vietnam were. He also is fully aware of the selfishness of his relationship with her, but does nothing for her. While Pyle offered Phuong marriage, love and respect as well as future prosperity, his simplistic ideas about politics led to many deaths including his own. Insulated from reality by his optimism and blind trust in a handful of books, Pyle epitomized the idea that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Throughout the story Phuong is distant and opaque throughout the book. Other than her penchant for buying scarves, we know so little of what Phuong really thinks. Pyle and Folwer probably didn’t know her all that well either. Phuong never complains to her sister or anyone about her life direction. She’s willing to forego decision-making and leave that to her sister or Pyle or Fowler.

What engaged me most was Greene’s style and the complexity of characters and plot. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam in the 1950s and this book made me appreciate that history more.

A few favorite quotations

“So it always is: when you escape to a desert, the silence shouts in your ear.”

“Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.”

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