Saturday, August 03, 2013


Penguin Trade Paperback Edition
I haven’t read much Graham Greene, but the few novels I have read—generally with years in between—I have enjoyed.  And with every novel I read, without fail, I wonder why I don’t read more of his work.  I recently read his Vietnam novel, The Quiet American.  It was originally published in 1955 and it literarily documents, through the actions of a young American agent, the seeds of the United States’ entry, as combatants, into Vietnam.

The Quiet American is told in first person by an aging British newspaper journalist named Thomas Fowler.  The novel’s opening scene has the arrival of a French policeman with news of the murder of one of Fowler’s friends.  A young American named Alden Pyle.  Pyle worked for the U. S. Economic Aid Mission in Saigon.  He is an idealist who believes it is both possible the U. S. can foster democracy in Vietnam.

Pyle’s knowledge of Vietnam is based on the work of a journalist named York Harding who has written several works about communism in Asia.  Harding wrote of a “Third Force”—something like the partisans in Nazi-occupied Europe in World War Two—that could rally the people into a popular rising for democracy.  The only problem, Vietnam is not Europe and the world is never as simple as we would like it.

The Quiet American is a prescient novel.  It was published 10 years prior to the first major U. S. battle in Vietnam, Ia Drang, but it deftly and accurately defines many of the problems the United States faced in Vietnam.  It explores the gung-ho naïveté with which the U. S. Government entered the country.  It foretells the debacle U. S. intelligence services would create with their secret wars and covert operations.  But the most interesting is its view of America and Americans as innocents unfamiliar with the world beyond its own borders.

It is rich with both historical perspective and its contemporary world.  The author obviously loved Vietnam; it is painted with a tapestry of vivid description and loving detail.  It is a literary thriller—in the best sense of that term.  It is a story first, but Graham Greene expertly weaves ideas, characters and truths into the narrative in a manner that they become an intricate and necessary part of the story.

The Quiet American is also a metaphor for the end of the British Empire and the rise of America as a superpower, and essentially an empire.  Pyle is the new—he is young, strong and full of ideas and ideals.  Fowler is the old—he is cynical, knowledgeable and somewhat world weary and frightened.  He is scared of age, but mostly he is frightened of losing his status and potency as a man.

The Quiet American is a wonderful novel.  The writing is smooth with a certain antiseptic feel—the reader views the events very much as a spectator, but the performance is so compelling it envelopes the reader with its dark and cynical view of how things are.  Its view of America is rough, but it is done in a way that is forgiving and understanding; almost as a parent disapproving the actions of a child.

The Quiet American is the best Vietnam novel I have read.  It is appealing as both a suspense novel and literature.  Its themes are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s and the story (the plotting, the description and setting) is brilliantly executed.  If you haven’t read this novel you should.

After Thought.  The Quiet American has been translated into film two times.  The first was Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1958 film starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave as Pyle and Fowler.  The second was Phillip Noyce’s 2002 version starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser as Fowler and Pyle.  Michael Caine was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Thomas Fowler.

I haven’t seen the original film, but the Noyce version is surprisingly good.  It captures the spirit and atmosphere of the novel very well.    

This review originally appeared on the now defunct blog Dark City Underground August 11, 2010 in slightly different form.  I will be moving a few other reviews from DCU to Gravetapping over the next several weeks.  I will also be posting some original content very soon.

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