Graham Greene’s masterly novel, The Quiet American, is the kind of novel that I find impossible not to read as an allegory. In this brief, devastating novel, two men—one British and one American—fight for the affections of a Vietnamese woman without really considering her wishes or feelings. The woman rarely gets to speak while the two men debate what’s best for her and her country in either deep cynicism (the Briton) or naive idealism (the American). This novel is not just allegory. It is also the story of a man wrestling with his conscience and his long commitment to neutrality, which is harder to maintain as conditions grow more violent.
The Quiet American is set in the mid-1950s in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), when the French were still fighting to hang on to their colony and Americans were just barely getting involved in the escalating conflict. Thomas Fowler has been in the city for two years, working as a reporter for a British newspaper. He is content. He has a mistress, Phuong, who cares for his needs. His job is not difficult, as much of what he writes is delivered and press conferences and anything controversial is censored before it leaves the country. The French regime is beginning to crumble around him, but Fowler isn’t worried about much. (The opium might be helping with that. It’s hard to say for sure.) The arrival of American Alden Pyle throws Fowler’s carefully maintained status quo off its axis. Pyle decides, after one meeting, that he is in love with Phuong and is determined to marry her.
Pyle is a fascinating character. I’ve met cynical, detached-but-sensitive characters like Fowler before. I’m comfortable with his blasé view of the political and social landscape. But Pyle is another story entirely. Pyle comes straight from Boston, armed with books by armchair political theorists who tell him that Democracy is something everyone should have, especially when Communism is lurking about. If asked, I don’t know that Pyle would be able to give clear definitions of either. He’s been taught that Democracy is the ideal and the Communism is evil. Even when he’s confronted with evidence that the situation in Vietnam is complicated and that his version of Democracy is just a different flavor of colonialism, Pyle refuses to learn. Pyle horrified me as often as I pitied him for his rigid world view.
The Quiet American has been on my to-read shelf for a long time. It’s been lauded as a mid-twentieth century classic and I am happy to report that it absolutely deserves its reputation. It hasn’t lost any of its punch in the sixty-four years since it was published. Its commentary on imperialism, interventionism, paternalism, and independence are just as effective (and important) as they were in 1955. I strongly recommend this for historical fiction readers who like books that carry a timeless message. Even for readers who don’t want too much moralizing, this novel is a brilliant study of two men in a foreign country who approach life from very different angles. The Quiet American, if nothing else, is a terrific read for its depiction of what happens when pragmatism and idealism collide.