Graham Greene, The Quiet American

The Quiet AmericanThe Quiet American by Graham Greene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a recent article, Leigh Jenco asserts that a “de-colonizing” approach to diversifying university humanities curricula has its limits. The problem is not only that the implicit leftist, progressive underpinning of such a program conflicts with intellectual traditions that developed outside the Christian-Enlightenment paradigm (a potentially explosive point—the non-liberalism of most of the planet!—which Jenco only insinuates), but more immediately that reforms centered on European colonialism invariably lead back to the European canon, so that your syllabus, wherever it ends up, seems always to start with Heart of Darkness:

In other words, it may be that the call for decolonization ironically enforces its own kinds of exclusion, by privileging the historical experience of European colonialism over other kinds of historical experience (including other kinds of domination, from other sources, justified in other ways).

I experienced this paradox recently when I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. The novel’s narrator, assailing the Orientalist misperception of his native Vietnam from Cold War anthropology to popular culture à la Apocalypse Now, writes a college thesis on The Quiet American, English novelist Graham Greene’s classic 1955 thriller about the end of French colonialism and the beginning of the American incursion in Vietnam.

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Source: “Pete Buttigieg’s 10 Favorite Books”

Since this is the second time Greene’s novel came up for me in the last few months—the first: U.S. presidential candidate and Afghanistan veteran Pete Buttigieg, marketing himself as a literary prodigy among other things, likewise wrote his undergrad thesis on The Quiet American—I decided that I had to go back to the canon. I went with some hesitancy, by the way; the only other Graham Greene novel I’ve read is The End of the Affair, and, while I darkly relished its gray, miserable Blitz atmosphere, I also resented its attempts to convert me, or re-convert me, to Catholicism.

Speaking of Catholicism, Greene insists that aesthetics implies metaphysics and vice versa. A Catholic (or at least Christian) writer won’t write like an agnostic or materialist or mystical writer. He elaborates on religion’s consequence for novelistic form in a famous critique of the modernists:

For with the death of [Henry] James, the religious sense was lost to the English novel, and with the religious sense went the sense of the importance of the human act. It was as if the world of fiction had lost a dimension: the characters of such distinguished writers as Mrs Virginia Woolf and Mr E. M. Forster wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin. […] The novelist, perhaps unconsciously aware of his predicament, took refuge in the subjective novel. It was as if he thought that by mining into layers of personality hitherto untouched he could unearth the secret of ‘importance’, but in these mining operations he lost yet another dimension. The visible world for him ceased to exist as completely as the spiritual. Mrs Dalloway walking down Regent Street was aware of the glitter of shop windows, the smooth passage of cars, the conversation of shoppers, but it was only a Regent Street seen by Mrs Dalloway that was conveyed to the reader: a charming whimsical rather sentimental prose poem was what Regent Street had become: a current of air, a touch of scent, a sparkle of glass. But, we protest, Regent Street too has a right to exist; it is more real than Mrs Dalloway, and we look back with nostalgia towards the chop houses, the mean courts, the still Sunday streets of Dickens. Dickens’s characters were of immortal importance, and the houses in which they loved, the mews in which they damned themselves were lent importance by their presence. (“François Mauriac,” Collected Essays)

If another life doesn’t undergird this one, Greene asks, then what’s to prevent this one from falling away? Unmoved by Woolf and Forster’s survey of secular society’s evanescing ruins, Greene pines for a real world held in place by the metaphysical weight of the souls that walk through it. Deifying the self is no substitute for the transcendent Creator upon whom all subsidiary creators, such as novelists, depend for their materia.

To comprehend what this means for a novel about imperialism, note that a politicized version of Greene’s point underlies Chinua Achebe’s famous censure of Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist”: because Africa is seen only through the mystifying haze of Marlow’s mind in Heart of Darkness, Achebe argues, the whole continent appears to the reader only as a mute, inert, and savage backdrop to the drama of white subjectivity.

Greene’s assertion of a real world outside his protagonist’s or narrator’s skull gives the African and Asian settings he shares with Conrad greater substance and independence, which is why his fiction might be seen by liberal or leftist thinkers both real and fictional, from Buttigieg to Nguyen’s narrator, as a political advance on Heart of Darkness—a contribution to the critique of imperialism.[1]

The Quiet American is narrated by Fowler, an aging English journalist on assignment in what was then called Indochina, covering the break-up of French control over Vietnam. When the novel begins, Fowler and his one-time Vietnamese paramour Phuong discover that the titular American, Pyle—an ingenuous 32-year-old Harvard man working for the Economic Aid Mission—has been murdered. Much of the rest of the brilliantly-structured thriller is a flashback that explains the personal and political entanglement of Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong, with occasional returns to the present as Fowler falls under suspicion by French authorities for Pyle’s death.

The relationships in the novel have both a private and a political dimension. Personally, the already married Fowler’s romance with the much younger Phuong, whose older sister would like to marry her off to a man with prospects, seems to have no future. Fowler can do little, then, when Pyle swoops in with his romantic and virginal desire to rescue innocents and asks for Phuong’s hand in marriage.

But politically, Pyle is not what he seems, not simply an economic advisor. He is, rather, a spy and saboteur trying to gather what—naively following American “area studies”  literature—he calls a “third force”: a Vietnamese constituency for the Americans to back against both the French imperialists and their Communist enemies.

This political ambition leads the ingenu, with his airy bromides about democracy, into complicity with a religious sect, an ambitious general, and brutal terrorists using American imports brought in by Pyle himself. Finally, the aloof Fowler decides he must step in to stop the American’s inadvertent reign of terror: “‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.'”

If the narrative’s private level were just a metaphor for its political level—if Phuong, that is, were just the feminized Orient recumbently squabbled over by active white men—it would be very distasteful. Greene is (mostly) saved from this ignominy by his grounded Catholic aesthetics, though; as students of Dante will recall, each interpretive layer of a successful allegory must possess its own reality and substance. So while Greene writes without apology from Fowler’s viewpoint, he is sure to register the reality outside it as against Pyle’s merely idealistic abstractions:

“You’ll just keep her as a comfortable lay until you leave.”

“She’s a human being, Pyle. She’s capable of deciding.”

“On faked evidence. And a child at that.”

“She’s no child. She’s tougher than you’ll ever be. Do you know the kind of polish that doesn’t take scratches? That’s Phuong. She can survive a dozen of us. She’ll get old, that’s all. She’ll suffer from childbirth and hunger and cold and rheumatism, but she’ll never suffer like we do from thoughts, obsessions—she won’t scratch, she’ll only decay.”

But as the last line (“like we do”) hints, Fowler has idealist abstractions of his own. What about his Orientalism—his languid and lyrical recollections of Baudelaire’s “Invitation to the Voyage” as he smokes the opium pipes that Phuong prepares for him?

When she bent over the flame the poem of Baudelaire’s came into my mind: Mon enfant, ma soeur…How did it go on?

Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble.

Out on the waterfront slept the ships, “dont l’humeur est vagabonde.” I thought that if I smelt her skin it would have the faintest fragrance of opium, and her colour was that of the small flame. I had seen the flowers on her dress beside the canals in the north, she was indigenous like a herb, and I never wanted to go home.

This motif cannot be understood without getting a more precise grip on the novel’s politics. To see what the novel’s politics are not, let me do as I did in my last essay and quote Bush-era Christopher Hitchens at his most tendentious:

If you re-read The Quiet American today, you will see that it blames the blundering Americans largely for failing to understand or to emulate the sophisticated French style of colonialism in Vietnam. For many of us the original sin—if I may annex that term—of the American intervention was precisely its inheritance of a doomed French war. For Greene, rather, it was the failure to live up to that legacy. Whatever this was, it was not a revolutionary or radical position. And it seems to have been content to overlook quite a few “victims.”

Hitchens is not wholly wrong: the English Fowler’s love of French decadence and Vietnam’s landscape contrasts with his disdain for America, expressed nowhere more lyrically or comically than in the scene where Fowler, having lost Phuong to Pyle, weeps in the bathroom of the U.S. Embassy:

I went in and locked the door and sitting with my head against the cold wall I cried. I hadn’t cried until now. Even their lavatories were air-conditioned, and presently the temperate tempered air dried my tears as it dries the spit in your mouth and the seed in your body.

Greene suggests that American morals are also air conditioned: artificially and technologically cleansed of discomfort, necessity, nature, and reality, as Fowler implies when he upbraids a shaken Pyle for his complicity with terrorism in the aftermath of a civilian-slaughtering attack by Pyle’s “third force” allies:

Pyle said, “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?”

“Blood,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?”

He said, “I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.” I don’t think he knew what he was saying. He was seeing a real war for the first time…

But as America dominates the post-World-War-II international order, the new East/West axis positions all the older civilizations from London and Paris to Saigon and Hanoi as the East against Washington’s West. Hence the blending of English, French, and Vietnamese aesthetics in Fowler’s narrative.

This point should not mislead us into thinking Greene or Fowler sympathizes with French colonialism, however. The French are portrayed not as sophisticated but as squalid (as in the scene where a French officer ineptly misleads international journalists) and, finally, as brutal, as when Fowler accompanies a French pilot on a bombing run:

The cannon gave a single burst of tracer, and the sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks: we didn’t even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climbed and made for home. I thought again as I had  thought when I saw the dead child at Phat Diem, “I hate war.” There had been something so shocking in our sudden fortuitous choice of a prey—we had just happened to be passing, one burst only was required, there was no one to return our fire, we were gone again, adding our little quota to the world’s dead.

And simply to stereotype the Americans would be to repeat their own recourse to managerial oversimplification. Fowler learns this lesson in an unexpected, moving conversation with the novel’s initially most dislikable American character, the coarse and oafish Granger, whose child is gravely ill with polio:

“I don’t dislike you, Granger. I’ve been blind to a lot of things . . .”

“Oh, you and me, we’re cat and dog. But thanks for the sympathy.”

Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?

Finally, Greene designs the entire narrative to climax with Fowler’s taking a stand in the political conflict: “[O]ne has to take sides. If one is to remain human.” With whom does our narrator ultimately side? Contra Hitchens, it is not with the French but with the Communists, the only force that can destroy Pyle before his good intentions kill any more civilians.

In contrast to most Western Cold War discourse, Greene portrays Americanism—making the world safe for democracy—as a dangerously wild-eyed utopianism or messianism, while “Communism” is just a newfangled name for perfectly ordinary political priorities: national and economic sovereignty.

“You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren’t interested.”

“They don’t want Communism.”

“They want enough rice,” I said. “They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.”

Concealed beneath the thriller is a tragedy: Pyle loses his innocence and then his life, and Fowler—though he triumphs over his American friend/enemy and even gets the girl—loses his peace of mind for good. The novel concludes with his penitence amid his fortune:

Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

Unlike the quiet American, Fowler knows that to live is to act, and that to act is to compromise and corrupt oneself. Just offscreen—Greene is a consummately cinematic author, as Hitchens points out: all panoramic establishing shots and suspenseful dialogues—is the possibility that God’s grace might redeem the world fallen humanity has debased.

While The Quiet American is structurally similar to The End of the Affair—both give us war-torn love triangles narrated by anguished cynics—I prefer it for its lack of religious controversy, even if Greene puts a political controversy in its place. God is implied in The Quiet American only by the baleful effects—European nihilism, American childishness—of His absence. And Greene’s extraordinary skill at the art of narration, of scene and structure, of word painting and drama, can’t be denied. This charming sketch of his methods that I find on Wikipedia must leave much careful planning and revision unspoken:

Michael Korda, a lifelong friend of Greene and later his editor at Simon & Schuster, once observed Greene at work. Korda observed that Greene wrote in a small black leather notebook with a black fountain pen and would write approximately 500 words. Once he reached 500 he would put his pen away and be done for the day. Korda described this as Graham’s daily penance—once he finished he put the notebook away for the rest of the day.

Yet The Quiet American falls short of greatness. Its characters have individuality but lack grandeur. Couldn’t Fowler be any hard-bitten narrator from Conrad to Hemingway to Chandler? Greene grants Phuong the specificity of her ingenuous cunning, but nothing more particular and memorable than that.

As for Pyle, his naïveté just isn’t big enough. Engulfed in Greene’s journalistic realism and argument about empire, Pyle has no room to become a Quixote or a Candide or—more relevantly—an Ahab or a Kurtz or a Gatsby, and so his romanticism is merely stupid and sordid rather than sublime.

Greene’s perceptive anti-imperial polemic deprives the novel of the social irresponsibility literature needs to rise above mere satire or documentary. What another English author of colonialism once said about East and West might more truly be spoken of politics and aesthetics: the twain shall never meet.


[1] For a very persuasive statement of the exact opposite thesis—that the modernists, including Conrad and Forster, are immensely important interpreters of 20th-century politics not despite but because they investigate how ideology manifests itself subjectively—see Michael Lackey’s (somewhat misleadingly titled) The Modernist God State: A Literary Study of the Nazis’ Christian Reich (2012). More modestly, I might also recommend that you consult the chapters lauding Joyce and Woolf as social critics of the inner life in my doctoral dissertation.


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