The Quiet American

Title:                      The Quiet American

Author:                 Graham Greene

Greene, Graham (1955, 2004). The Quiet American. New York : Penguin Books

LCCN:    2004559911

PR6013.R44 Q5 2004


Date Posted:      December 7, 2016

Reviewed by Robert Gorham Davis[1]

Graham Greene’s new [published in 1955] book is quite different from anything he has written before. It is a political novel—or parable—about the war in Indochina, employing its characters less as individuals than as representatives of their nations or political factions. Easily, with long-practiced and even astonishing skill, speaking with the voice of a British reporter who is forced, despite himself, toward political action and commitment, Greene tells a complex but compelling story of intrigue and counter-intrigue, bombing and murder. Into it is mixed the rivalry of two white men for a Vietnamese girl. These elements are all subordinate to the political thesis which they dramatize and which is stated baldly and explicitly throughout the book.

As the title suggests, America is the principal concern. The thesis is quite simply that America is a crassly materialistic and “innocent” nation with no understanding of other peoples. When her representatives intervene in other countries’ affairs it causes only suffering. America should leave Asians to work out their own destinies, even when this means the victory of communism.

In Greene’s previous novels, geographic and social backgrounds have been used with great skill to make the foreground action more dramatic, but social or national issues have never been argued for their own sake. In The Quiet American the effect of circumstances is specifically ideological and political. Everything that the British reporter, Fowler, sees of the war, of the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, drives him out of his “uninvolvedness” toward a decision. Above all, he is moved by his hatred of the Americans. “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 sensual Fowler, incidentally, seems to have been tired of everything, including himself.

In this novel, as in Greene’s earlier “entertainment,” This Gun for Hire [1936] a murderous outrage occurs, intended to affect the war’s course. A badly timed bombing in the public square of Saigon, planned to disrupt a parade, instead kills mostly women and children. Fowler sets to work to discover the author of this outrage and finds it to be an American, Pyle, whom he already knows as a love rival. Intending to marry her, Pyle has taken Fowler’s mistress, Phuong, away from him, but has tried to do it in as candid and decent fashion as possible.

Pyle is an idealistic young United States official with gangly legs, a crew cut and a “wide campus gaze.” He is the son of a famous professor who lives on Chestnut Street in Boston. There is nothing self-interested in his motives for the villainy which Greene has concocted for his role. He is working for the O.S.S. “or whatever his gang are called,” and is convinced that in intriguing with the dissident General Tho he is moving effectively to create a “Third Force” against both the French Colonials and the Communists. Fowler sees the Third Force as a merely political abstraction Pyle got out of books. “He never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture hall, and his writers and lecturers made a fool of him.”

“Innocence,” Fowler says, “is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm. You can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them.” The elimination of liberals and social democrats always comes first, of course, in the Communists’ program for political seizure of power. The symbolic act toward which Fowler is driven by the events of the book is the elimination of the American, with the aid of Vietnam Communist agents. There is nothing personal about this, as far as Fowler’s conscious mind is aware, for Pyle had saved his life during a brilliantly described night of violence and suffering on the road outside Saigon.

If much of the description of Indochina at war is written with Greene’s great technical skill and imagination, his caricatures of American types are often as crude and trite as those of Jean Paul Sartre. He is not ashamed as an artist to content himself with the picture of America made so familiar by French neutralism; the picture of a civilization composed exclusively of chewing gum, napalm bombs, deodorants, Congressional witch-hunts, celery wrapped in cellophane, and a naive belief in one’s own superior virtue.

Even in this indictment the book is inconsistent. As a non-implicated man who really understands the East, Fowler scorns American liberals for trying to introduce into Asia their textbook notions of democracy and freedom. “I have been in India, Pyle,” Fowler says, “and I know the harm liberals do.” At the same time, sounding very much a liberal, he accuses the Americans of selfish opportunism, of letting the French do the dying while they clean up commercially. Emotionally and usually Fowler describes the war as a meaningless slaughter of women and children, as if no enemy existed, and yet he is in touch with this enemy, the Communist Vietminh, and expects it, because of its superior understanding and organization, to win the war.

Admiring American girls for their bodies, Fowler insists to himself that they could not possibly be capable of “untidy passion.” He has contempt for their bright vacuousness; yet Phuong, the comely Vietnamese, the only person in the world who means anything in his life, shows few qualities beyond self-interested compliance. She prepares his opium pipes and allows herself to be made love to at his convenience. She says nothing of interest, takes her rewards in bright-colored scarfs, and pores over picture books of the royal family.

What will annoy Americans most in this book is the easy way Fowler is permitted to triumph in his debates with the Americans. The priests whom Greene makes argue so tersely and effectively with the skeptics at the conclusions of The Power and the Glory[2] and The End of the Affair [1951] did not have so easily their own way. When Americans are condemned for letting others do their dying for them no one speaks of Korea. Fowler says that only the Communist respects and understands the peasant. “He’ll sit in his hut and ask his name and listen to his complaints; he’ll give up an hour a day to teaching him—it doesn’t matter what, he’s being treated like a man, like someone of value.” Pyle, the American, does not remind Fowler of the thousands of individuals who make desperate escapes from Communist countries every week in order to life as humans. He only replies uneasily, “You don’t mean half what you are saying.” There is no real debate in the book, because no experienced and intelligent anti-Communist is represented there. Greene must feel either that such men do not exist or that they do not serve his present purposes.

It would be wrong, of course, to wish to argue, if these custom-made characters were merely characters and merely speaking for themselves. Fowler, however, is often quoting almost verbatim from articles which Graham Greene wrote about Indochina for The London Times last spring. He had visited the Communist territories and been much impressed by the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. When these articles were published in this country they caused an especially strong reaction in the Catholic press. Greene had regretted that the Catholic Bishops with their people had withdrawn from Communist territory. “The church has not ceased to exist in Poland.” He criticized the Catholic Church for identifying itself with American “militarism” and with the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the southern Vietnamese Premier, “a patriot ruined by the West.” Subsequently Greene has visited Warsaw for private talks with Polish Catholic leaders.

When The Quiet American is read against the background of these articles, it can be seen to be more profoundly related to Greene’s earlier religious novels than its polemic character at first suggested. In those novels God is reached only through anguish because religion is always paradoxical in its demands. Rationalists are forced to accept the crassest of miracles. In believers, love and pity often war with the chance of salvation. God is most God when His earthly Kingdom is weakest, and His mercy sometimes looks like punishment.

When Graham Greene grants primary justice to the Communist cause in Asia, and finds insupportable its resistance under the leadership of America, he raises inevitably this question: Has he reconciled himself to the thesis that history or God now demands of the church and of Western civilization a more terrible surrender than any required of the tormented characters in his fiction?

[1] Robert Gorham Davis, “In Our Time No Man Is a Neutral,” The New York Times (March 11, 1956). Downloaded December 7, 2016. At the time of writing Mr. Davis was chairman of the English Department at Smith.

[2] Greene, Graham (1940). The Power and the Glory. London ; Toronto : W. Heinemann