Part 1: The Quiet American - book
It is the peculiar talent of certain writers to write in a sparse, understated style: sparing the story of unnecessary extravagance and detail, but still conveying all kinds of hidden meanings and continuous motifs - far below the surface. Such is the talent shown in Graham Greene's 1955 novel: The Quiet American, a fantastic novel set in the early stages of the Vietnam War.
Greene's book tells the story of foreign correspondent (though he prefers the term reporter) Thomas Fowler: a middle aged, divorced Englishman living in Saigon with his young Vietnamese mistress Phuong. Fowler avoids forming opinions, has sympathies with the local population and partakes in smoking opium most nights. He meets the idealistic 'quiet American' Alden Pyle who's naivety and bookish approach brings about bloodshed and heartbreak. Pyle's actions bring to mind Hannah Arendt's concept: the banality of evil.
There are far reaching ambiguities towards the end, that make the novel all the more meaningful and thrilling. A particular highlight for me is the conversation between Fowler and Pyle when under attack from the Communist Viet Minh forces. And though the prose can be somewhat slow at times: it is highly informative and apart from the odd bits of French speech, it is easy to read. It also suits the narrator's (Fowler) calm and composed character. One wonders to what extent Fowler is based on Greene himself.
Greene's skill in storytelling subtly expresses the callousness of the foreign - particularly American - approach towards Vietnam: overly theoretical, hypocritical and far too often (wrongly) claiming the moral high ground. It is obvious they maintain a deep misunderstanding of the local culture, shamelessly portraying themselves as aides, rather than colonisers. But like his protagonist, Greene does not say anything outright: the message is below the surface level.
A somewhat chilling prediction of the future of American involvement in Vietnam, Greene's novel contains many moral dilemmas, and in a way each of them serve as symbols for the wider dilemma that underpins the entire book: foreign involvement in Vietnam. Maybe if those in power took the time to read Greene's novel, we wouldn't have had the dreadful atrocities of the Vietnam War.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2: A review of the film starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.