Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Classics Club: The Quiet American

When I first read The Quiet American by Graham Greene, I was a teenager.  I studied the book for the Proficiency Diploma in English as a foreign language, and it served as material for the oral exam.  I was so impressed with its content, the descriptions of extraordinary situations, the conflict between nations, people and couples.  I considered it as one of the best novels I'd read (true, there hadn't been that many at that point), and I regarded it as a good example of classic literature. I decided to include the book in the Classics Club, because of these memories and because it had been 26 years ago - a good time to re-read a book one has loved.

Graham Greene is in general one of my favourite modern Classic authors, because he uses simple language, yet manages to provide food for thought through little stories of unimportant everyday people. At least this was how I felt when I started reading the Quiet American.

I soon felt that my understanding of the novel was not what I had expected.  I wanted height of feelings, excitement, explosive encounters - yet, what I found was a rather uneventful storyline - not that nothing happens, but rather that nothing triggered any emotion in me.  Have I become that cynical? (Yes).  Have I witnessed plenty of similar situations that nothing surprises me anymore? (Yes).  Have the power games among the few nations around the globe taught me there is no innocence left? (Yes).
In the Quiet American, we follow the story of a unusual trio:  a disillusioned English reporter (Fowler), his even  more disillusioned, searching for financial security Vietnamese mistress (Phuong), and the innocent, inexperienced American (Pyle).  While I could see that Greene used all stereotypes of the American people as seen through the eyes of the outsiders, I can't say that I was bothered (then again, I'm not American). 

"I was tired of the whole pack of them, with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their wide cars and their not quite latest guns"

The plot happens at two levels:  the personal, where the two men fight for the woman, and the national, where one former superpower has to deal with an emerging superpower over a little country far, far away from the interests of either of them. 

I could feel Fowler's tiredness from the first page.  His voice is so weary with all the wisdom he's acquired from his time in Vietnam; he's seen it all, he's done it all; he just wants to be left alone, smoking his opium pipes in peace...  Yet, he's summoned out of his zen life when an idealistic Pyle arrives and was to implement (right away, if possible) all the preachings he's been tought. Fowler can detect the danger of such idealism, but can't help but look out for Pyle:

 "You can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless.  All you can do is control them or eliminate them"

The relationship between the two characters is bizarre, to say the least.  I could not really understand how they could become so close to each other, when clearly they should hate each other.  At times the situations they find themselves in are not believable (urged by a sense of honour, Pyle follows Fowler in the war zone to inform him he will pursue Phuong???)

Phuong, on the other hand, is real.  She looks for financial security and will stay with whoever can provide that for her.  She's really in the background of the story, so I can't say I related to her at all, as her contribution does not have any real impact on the development of the story.

The descriptions of war and the killings of civilians as well as the theories of York Harding and the third power at some point lose their meaning for me.  I started skipping parts because they had already been mentioned and because, quite frankly, I could not see any added value to the story.

But perhaps this was my error all along:  I treated the book as a literary work of fiction, a novel.  As such, The Quiet American does not fare well.  Had I considered it, however, as a political essay, I could see what Greene intended to say all along:   Even in today's "democratic" systems, there will always be "defenders of freedom", who will do anything to protect the status quo from "enemies".  Such people (like Pyle) will never dare question the rationale behind the evil that will lead to suffering and destruction.  As a result, ideology becomes insensitivity (for some reason, this reminded me of Animal Farm...).  On the hand, Greene warns, we should never (like Fowler) remain indifferent and closed to the outside world.  We must never lose touch with the reality that is around us, only to wake up late in life and realise we can no longer change our fates.

These statements redeemed The Quiet American in the end.  It may have lost some places in the list of Best ever classics, but it's still there among my preferred ones... And one last comment:  The Quiet American was written before the United States' war in Vietnam, with its terrible aftermath on innocent civilians.  What an insight into the future turn of events Greene had...

Also read for the 2012 Graham Greene reading challenge


  1. After reading your post I'm wondering if I ought to go back to the Greenes I'd read. I studied The Power and the Glory for my undergrad course, and while I read the whole novel, I didn't care for it at all. But, when doing my postgrad course we read The Heart of the Matter, and I was so caught up with what I read I decided I needed to revisit The Power and the Glory in order to appreciate it.

    1. You're absolutely right - the experience in life changes so much our appreciation of books!

  2. I guess it just goes to show that re-reading a book 5, 10 or more years afterwards, one's opinion often changes. Too bad that The Quiet American disappoints on many points, but at least you've found something new to appreciate about it?

    1. Definitely - Greene still is one of my favourite modern Classic authors. I just realise that the older I get and the more I read, the more I demand of a book and the less I am impressed with "simple" plots ...

  3. Anonymous7/10/12

    And this is why I like rereading books from time to time... things change within us which changes the book for us. -Sarah

    1. Coming of age, I suppose. Bittersweet feelings...

  4. The Quiet American was my first experience with Graham Greene when I read it a few years ago - and I agree, I found his ideas prescient considering the future entry of the US into Vietnam. I've linked this review to the Graham Greene challenge page.




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