“The Quiet American” – Graham Greene book review

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I read my second consecutive British expatriate novel set in south east Asia. Burmese Days by George Orwell, is set in 1930s Myanmar while the Quiet American is set in 1950s Vietnam. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors and his writing style flows beautifully. Like Burmese Days, The Quiet American was a controversial book when it was released.

The main character is Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged reporter for a British newspaper. He is covering the conflict between the French and the communist Vietnamese in the first Indochina War after World War II. The novel predicts the entry of the Americans in Vietnam and its failure. Alden Pile is works as an economic attache at the US Embassy. Both men are in love with a young Vietnamese girl, who is living with Fowler. It is a really good story and gives some good background into the time period and war as all good historical fiction does. Greene has many astute observations about aging, retirement, age differences in relationships and the expatriate lifestyle. Fowler is dreading going back to England to take over as the foreign editor of the paper. The characters represent the different viewpoints of the war, with Americans, British, French, Vietnamese and Chinese perspectives explored.

I will not spoil ending, but my only criticism of the book is the depiction of the detective work in a murder investigation. I don’t believe the murderer would get away with the crime. This does not however, take away from my enjoyment of the book and I highly recommend it. It was made into a movie twice and I would like to see the 2002 film.

Pico Iyer from NPR writes more eloquently about the book. Below is an excerpt from his 2008 review:

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

The more I read about Vietnam and meet people from there, the more I want to visit.

 

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