The Quiet American, Graham Greene, London 1955, (Penguin 1986 edition)
Unlike them, I had reason for thankfulness, for wasn’t [my lover] Phuong alive? Hadn’t Phuong been “warned?” But what I remembered was the torso in the square, the baby on its mother’s lap. They had not been warned: they had not been sufficiently important. And if the parade had taken place would they not have been there just the same, out of curiosity, to see the soldiers, and hear the speakers, and throw the flowers? A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate. How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?
Obviously, there was renewed interest in this book when we invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003. The story centers on the relationship between a British journalist, his Vietnamese lover, and the eponymous Quiet American, an “economic attache” who works for the CIA. Fowler, the Brit, tries to stay as neutral as possible during the French war in Indochine; while Pyle’s American idealism begins to fuel more unrest in an already war-torn country. As you can tell from the quoted passage, Fowler finds his neutrality increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of Pyle’s callous commitment to his ideals above all else.
Greene manages to create engaging characters who can also serve as representatives of international schools of thought. Neither Pyle nor Fowler exactly cover themselves in glory, as they seem to me to represent two different strains of colonialism more than anything else. Nevertheless, the grisly question Fowler poses after witnessing the effect of a terrorist bombing is one that Americans–the ones who think about the news, anyway–have had to grapple with for years in the wake of Iraq II.
Being something of a connoisseur of Vietnam stories, both fictional (The Short Timers, The Things They Carried) and journalistic (seriously, I have and have read at least twice the Library of America’s “Reporting Vietnam” anthology–it’s all newspaper and magazine articles covering the scope of the Vietnam War), I really appreciated a take from the mid-50’s on the same conflict. Many of the elements that appear in later American stories also appear here: dispirited troops, official misinformation a la the infamous Five O’Clock Follies, the bending of the facts to fit into the occupiers’ preconceptions. It’s eerie, and it’s a timely enough echo of what much of our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan have been like as well.
Finally, I think they made this into a movie starring Michael Caine a few years ago. Maybe it’s just my imagination. Whenever Fowler spoke, I kept hearing Michael Caine read his lines, so if the movie hasn’t been made at least the casting choice is clear. 🙂
Enthusiastic thumbs up! Greene was a prolific author, so expect to see me pick up more of his work.