The Quiet American by Graham Greene

December 6, 2010

Plot summary (with spoilers): Thomas Fowler is a British journalist covering the French Indochina War from Saigon. At the beginning of the novel, he enjoys a rather contented existence. He’s not at the front lines, and his home life is sweetened by his young Vietnamese lover, Phuong.

Soon thereafter, however, Fowler meets a 30-something American named Alden Pyle. Pyle, an idealist who believes in the theories of world democracy proposed by author York Harding, ostensibly works for the American economic office, though his actions are quiet suspect. Then Pyle falls in love with Phuong and confesses this fact to Fowler, thus complicating relationships among the three. Phuong eventually leaves Fowler in favor of Pyle, mostly because he will marry her — something the already married Fowler cannot do.

In time, Fowler begins to learn some rather disturbing things about Pyle. It seems that Pyle is not part of the economic office after all, but some kind of secret operative. Indeed, Pyle is responsible for setting off a bicycle bomb in a public square, resulting in the deaths of some 30+ innocent civilians, including women and children. After confirming his suspicions about Pyle, Fowler decides the man must be stopped. Specifically, he encourages an assassination of Pyle, which succeeds.

Afterwards, Fowler’s wife writes to tell him she changed her mind and will grant him a divorce. Phuong comes back, and presumably the two live happily ever after.

Liked:

  • This was a beautifully written story. It would take the most sensitive of micrometers to measure my minuscule understanding of what was going on in the book in terms of symbolism and political significance, but even this didn’t stop me from seeing what a terrific writer Greene is.
  • I saw the Brendan Fraser-Michael Caine movie many years ago, and I think that helped me understand what happened in this novel. I’m not sure if I could have done so otherwise, because some passages were a bit confusing (such as the night in the watchtower).
  • Both of the main characters were interesting, and they needed to be. This is very much a book that depends on the characters rather than the plot.

Disliked:

  • As I said, I don’t think I understood the significance of what Greene was writing. From other reviews I’ve read, it appears that this book more or less “predicted” American involvement in Vietnam. Even with historical hindsight available to me, I’m not quite sure what the big deal about this book was (politically speaking).
  • This is probably a minor thing, but I didn’t want Phuong to go back to Fowler at the end. I didn’t think he deserved her, and thought he was better suited to be alone (even though such a prospect scared him).

Rating:

I read The Quiet American because it is on the Observer Top 100 Novels list — and I’m glad I did. I like Graham Greene’s writing style, and will definitely try a few more of his novels in the near future. As for this book, it is strangely engrossing — even if you don’t think you have any interest in the French Indochina War. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply