The Quiet American
by Graham Greene
Greene’s brilliant, thought-provoking, novel is set in Vietnam. It is 1952 and the country is trying to regain independence from the French. This is the background for a story that is ostensibly about love and political intrigue, yet works well on a symbolic level - the characters representing the complex and ambiguous interests of the Americans and British in a post-colonial Far East.
The narrator is Fowler, a dissipated English journalist who sees himself as a ‘reporter’ not a ‘correspondent’. He believes he can report dispassionately on the war without being involved – it is only when he experiences it at first hand that he is forced into engagement. His love for Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman, brings him into conflict with Pyle, the eponymous Quiet American. The title hints at the layers of irony within this short but dense novel: as the French inspector says, “yes, a very quiet American” when Pyle’s body is found.
Fowler’s commentary belies the cynical, world-weary persona that he presents to Pyle: “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”.
The film of the novel was due to be released in the autumn but in the patriotic fervour following 9/11 it was delayed because, above all, it is a criticism of American interventionist foreign policy that is as relevant today as it was then.