Title: The Quiet American
Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library.
First line: 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 had struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.
Alden Pyle is the title character of The Quiet American, and we are told in the first chapter that he has been murdered. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist living and working in Vietnam, tells us the story of his strange relationship with Pyle. Pyle was an American, and his exact business in Vietnam is not truly understood until the end of his tragic story. He and Fowler meet, and Pyle falls in love with Phuong, the young Vietnamese woman that Fowler is living with. The story of their love triangle plays out against a background of international intrigue and horrific violence.
This novel takes place in the ’50s, the years before the Americans enter the Vietnam War. The French are fighting the Communists, and the Vietnamese peasants are caught in the cross-fire. Greene demonstrates how naive idealism can be, how a black-and-white view of the world can lead to abuses and tragedies. Pyle truly believes that what he is doing in Vietnam is right, that the “collateral damages” are worth it in the end. His self-righteous determination to stick to his mission forces Fowler to choose sides, even though he had determined to remain disengaged, an impartial journalist. The fact that his choice also gives him the benefit of Phuong’s companionship only adds to his guilt and despair.
From the outside, The Quiet American looks like a small, simple book, but the powerful feelings it creates in the reader are anything but simple. This would be a perfect book for this year’s War Through the Generations Challenge.