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Graham Greene: The Quiet American

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 01, 2016
Category: Fiction

They made a movie of Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, starring Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. It was set in London during World War II, and it had sex and infidelity and death and the Church.

Hot stuff.

They also made a movie of Greene’s novel, "The Quiet American." It starred Michael Caine. The love interest was Asian. It was set in Vietnam during the early 1950s, when the French were getting their asses kicked.

Also hot stuff.

“The End of the Affair” is about belief. “The Quiet American” deals with a worldier kind of belief: politics. In brutal study of misplaced intentions, Alden Pyle is an American fresh out of Harvard who comes to Vietnam intending to do good. Instead, he fatally misunderstands the reality of the situation and leaves carnage in his wake. Yes, he’s a “quiet American” but just as dangerous as a noisy, vulgar one. As someone says of him: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

When I was younger, I used to say, “If people in the State Department had read this book in the early 1960s, we would never have sent troops to Vietnam.” (In fact, I’ve since learned, many did. They just thought the lessons of colonial war didn’t apply to the United States.) Reading it now, some will surely think this novel contains the lesson of Iraq as well — namely, that when you’re in a war zone, the biggest achievement of good intentions mixed with situational ignorance is to get a lot of innocent people killed.

I recently re-reread “The Quiet American” without regard to the politics. And this time I discovered an even better book — a detective novel — that is brilliantly plotted and written. For me, it’s Graham Greene’s best novel, and that’s saying something, for Greene was probably the most gifted storyteller of the mid-20th century. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

Just look at the book’s opening paragraph:

After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said, “I’ll be with you at latest by ten,” and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street. A lot of old women in black trousers squatted on the landing; it was February and I suppose too hot for them in bed. One trishaw driver pedaled slowly by towards the riverfront and I could see lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes. There was no sign of Pyle anywhere in the long street.

Why no sign of Pyle? Because he’s dead. And it’s just possible that the narrator — Thomas Fowler, a British correspondent who has lost his Asian lover to Pyle — knows it. May even have had a hand in his death. At the very least, won’t weep for the dead American ideologue.

Here we have a classic example of the “unreliable narrator”. More to the point, we have an example of masterful writing. Place, people, atmosphere — in a few lines, Greene conveys a hot night in Saigon and sets the story in motion. And he does something that looks easy but is actually so hard that the only other English novelist who can pull it off as well was Somerset Maugham: He writes as he might talk, as if he’s telling an interesting story to a friend over drinks.

Greene isn’t Fowler, though he has tendencies. Like Fowler, he was married, but only when he was with his wife — he described himself as “a bad husband and a fickle lover". Like Fowler, he likes to see the dead bodies for himself. A convert to Catholicism, he is, like Fowler, extremely interested in how people behave when their core values are under assault.

And, like Fowler, the cynic in Greene is really a thwarted romantic. He may lie about a few facts, but never about deep truths. In the end, he’s a very reliable narrator — and, if you like detective fiction that’s extravagantly smart, a very exciting one.