26 February 2008

Recommended Reading: The Quiet American

Graham Greene's 1955 novel is a work of prophecy. It's probably the British author's best-known work, having been filmed twice, most recently starring Brendan Frazier in the title role and Michael Caine as the actual protagonist. It's set in Vietnam during the last years of French rule. Alden Pyle is the "quiet American," later the "very quiet American," an idealistic young lunk doing humanitarian work with plastics. As the novel develops, we learn that Pyle is providing those "plastics" to a dubious guerrilla army that he portrays as a "third force" tainted by neither communism nor colonialism. Pyle got the idea for a "third force" from his favorite political-science author, and his whole attitude toward Vietnam seems to be based on books. He believes he can base the third force around the idea of "liberty." In other words, this fictional character is, arguably, the original neocon.

Greene's protagonist, Thomas Fowler, is an opium-smoking English journalist with a wife at home and a Vietnamese girlfriend whom Pyle falls for. The novel juxtaposes the two men's rivalry for the girl with the Americans beginning to impose their agenda on the country while the French are still fighting. Some of the discussions between Fowler and Pyle could be repeated word for word more than fifty years later, only substituting "Iraq" or "the Middle East" for "Vietnam," and "Communism" for "terrorism" or "Islamofascism." Here's a sample: Fowler and Pyle are stuck overnight in a guard tower, anticipating a Viet Minh attack, with two native soldiers.

[Pyle asks] "So you think we've lost?"
"That's not the point,"
[Fowler] said, "I've no particular desire to see you win. I'd like those two poor buggers there to be happy -- that's all. I wish they didn't have to sit in the dark at night, scared."
"You have to fight for liberty."
"I haven't seen any Americans fighting around her. And as for liberty, I don't know what it means. Ask them." I called across the floor in French to them. "La liberte -- qu'est-ce que c'est la liberte?" They sucked in the rice and stared back and said nothing.
Pyle said, "Do you want everybody to be made in the same mould? You're arguing for the sake of arguing. You're an intellectual. You stand for the importance of the individual as much as I do."
"Why have we only just discovered it?" I said, "Forty years ago no one talked that way."
"It wasn't threatened then."
"Ours wasn't threatened, oh no, but who cared about the individuality of the man in the paddy field -- and who does now? The only man to treat him as a man is the political commissar. 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. Don't go on in the East with that parrot cry about a threat to the individual soul. Here you'd find yourself on the wrong side -- it's they who stand for the individual and we just stand for Private 23987, unit in the global strategy."

Don't mistake this for a dry novel of ideas, though, and don't mistake Fowler for a heroic figure. He's very much a flawed protagonist, and his self-loathing leaves you questioning how reliable a narrator he is, particularly in the way he regards the Vietnamese. In any event, he comes across convincingly as a real person, more so than Pyle may have seen to the original readers. But I assure you, he'll seem very familiar now.

In addition, even though people may have seen one of the movies, and even though Greene lets you know how the story ends in the first chapter, he succeeds in creating an atmosphere of moral suspense as Fowler tries to put a stop to Pyle. Greene is known for writing literate thrillers with intense characterizations. The Quiet American is the first of his novels that I have read, and so far he comes as advertised.

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