The Quiet American
By Graham Greene
Why this book?
Set during the 1950s during what the French called The Indochina War, Greene’s classic novel never-the-less prophetically brings to life the attitudes that would lead to America’s war in Vietnam. Pyle, a bright young U.S. CIA agent, posing as a foreign-service officer in charge of a medical aid program, falls in love with Phuong, the mistress of Fowler, a jaded British reporter who is covering the fighting between the French and the Viet Minh. In their fight for Phuong’s heart (or at least her body), the two men are meant to represent contending Western approaches to Vietnam. Fowler feels the Vietnamese are indifferent to (and perhaps incapable of) Western-style democracy and any attempt to push them towards it would be not only doomed to failure but destructive of the Vietnamese; Pyle, an adherent of a Cold War brand of anti-communism, believes a “third force,” between the Vietnamese supporting the French and the communists fighting against them, could create a democratic alternative. His attempt to fit the Vietnamese into his notions of what they should be (reflecting what that great wit Robert MacNamara later called our complete ignorance of Vietnamese history, culture, and politics) has deadly consequences, paid for in Vietnamese bodies, a chilling foretelling of the war to come. Yet Fowler’s relationship to Vietnam, although depicted as more attractively cynical and thus worldly, is equally shallow. Greene, who makes Phuong the metaphor for Vietnam, creates her as a one-dimensional, heartless, and materialistic woman without any agency herself. Her strength is in her ability to adjust and survive, but in the end, she is as much the cliché of an enigmatic, elusive oriental femme-fatal to Fowler as she is a charming, passive emblem to Pyle. Can we separate the author’s attitude towards the Vietnamese from that of those two characters? The absence of any three-dimensional Vietnamese character suggests that we can’t. Yet it must be said, that in creating Phuong as a tabula rasa in whom each white character sees only the image he wants her to be, Greene accurately and painfully reveals what Vietnam the country was to those foreigners who came themselves or who sent their countrymen to live and die there.
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