The Quiet American is a quintessential book of the American involvement in the Vietnam War. It is seen by some as Greene’s anti-American sentiments. Americans should have known better than to get mixed with the affairs of Vietnam, and now look at what happened. That’s what it seems to be telling me, at least on the surface.
But if you chip away that surface, there’s a tale of moral complexity that takes the form of a murder mystery. Alden Pyle, the eponymous American, is a well-meaning CIA agent who’s out there to put into practice the theory of his favorite political author. He keeps on preaching about York’s Third Force that will solve the problem that is Vietnam. He blindly follows this York fellow and doesn’t know that his ideologies are going to be murderous. These are going to make not only his pants and boots splattered with blood but his hands as well. He will pay for his rallying of the Third Force with his life.
Which shouldn’t come as a spoiler because how else would one interpret the title? The Quiet American is not literally about an American who is shy and who doesn’t talk much. On the contrary, Pyle has a knack for talking. He is even confrontational, going as far as asking permission to court the beautiful Phuong no less from her lover. He’s nothing but quiet until a string of circumstances silenced him for life. A dead American would of course require the investigation of French officials, and who gets interrogated?
Thomas Fowler, a British journalist and the novel’s narrator, is one of the key persons during the investigation. He could have saved Pyle’s life. But why should he? Pyle is, on many rounds, a better and more suitable man for his lover Phuong. He could marry her and bring her to America. He’s younger and he has a more promising career. Whereas Fowler, he’s getting old, undivorced, and smokes a lot of opium. And he’s scared of being alone when he is so close dying.
So why should he save Pyle when it would mean a different kind of death for him? This is basically how the murder angle of the story goes, which is easily achieved in a rather short novel. But what’s more amazing is that it’s packed with a lot of questions on war mingled with Greene’s American criticism. He shows us the adolescent and innocent worldview of the Americans in this novel. Yes, he insistently describes Americans as innocent, a word which has, since finishing this novel, had a new dimension for me. Does it mean a lack of regard for putting one’s self in a situation where one is not needed? Or does it mean an inability to have any understanding of the outcomes of one’s actions? In this case, innocence isn’t much of a virtue in this novel. It is used with the same sarcasm that dominates the tone of Fowler’s narration. Fowler even goes as far as describing innocence as a disease.
I stopped our trishaw outside the Chalet and said to Phuong, ‘Go in and find a table. I bad better look after Pyle.’ That was my first instinct–to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
Regardless of what the word may come to mean to you later, one thing is clear. Greene has long figured out what a mistake it had been to be rash and bold and vain and blind to the disaster that marching into the tricky war of Vietnam would bring to all. It should be learned that it isn’t a light task to take a side on the war of people whom we barely know.
[Read in July 2015.]
[4 out of 5 stars.]
[180 pages. Trade paperback.]