The Quiet American by Graham Greene Reviewed by Robert Hill

Set in Saigon in early 1950s French Indo-China, Greene analyses the post-war decline of European imperialism, the rise of anti-colonial insurgency and the Cold War chess games that are played out in this era of Asian decolonisation. Published in 1955, this story precedes, predicts and uncannily forebodes the involvement of the USA in South East Asia that was to eventually become the Vietnam War.

Pyle, the Quiet American of the title, arrives in Saigon with naive, pre-conceived and romantic notions of promoting US style capitalist democracy in the region by channelling funds to a ‘Third Force’, represented by the renegade General The. Via his cover as part of the US Legation’s medical mission Pyle attempts to strengthen the hand of a group that is neither the crumbling French imperial government or the purportedly Communist Vietminh. 

Fowler, an embittered and cynical English journalist is in situ as the foreign correspondent of a London newspaper covering the insurgency. Estranged from his wife, who won’t grant him a divorce, and dreading the loneliness that would come with a home posting Fowler uses opium and battlefield journalism as both escape from and connection to the reality of his life.

Though these men seemingly have nothing in common they find themselves linked by a sometimes inexplicable friendship and more so for their love of the same Vietnamese girl, Phuong. The lives of all three intertwine as the novel unfolds with the tug of love (or possession) of Phuong acting as an analogy for the struggle to win the heart and mind of Vietnam itself.

This book should be required reading for any White House, Department of State or Department of Defense staffer in the US administration who may have ideas or delusions of nation building and the exporting of democracy to so-called developing or failing states.

In a little under 200 pages Greene explores the shared European and US mind-sets of paternalism, what can only be described as institutional racism and self-serving ideas of superiority.  Greene also cleverly juxtaposes and contrasts the Cold War and decolonisation era differences of the European need to hang on to past imperial glories and US desire to shape a global future in its own image.

Strikingly, Greene manages to explore this palimpsest of political perspectives in a novel that is essentially an old fashioned story of love, desire, need, conflict and betrayal.

This review first appeared in The Claudian Review