This is my fourth Graham Greene book; I am enthusiastic about two and not-so-much about two. This falls into the not-so-much category. It was written in 1955 and set at the end of the era of French colonial control of Vietnam as told by a cynical British reporter. Thomas Fowler has lived in Saigon for some years, happy to be away from his wife in Britain who refuses him a divorce. He lives with Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman who is content with him as a safe harbor.
The “quiet American,” Alden Pyle, arrives on the scene and after a single dance with Phuong, falls in love with her. Fowler is contemptuous of the younger Pyle who declares to Fowler that he loves Phuong and wants to marry her and take her back to the US. She is excited at the prospect of living in the US where there are skyscrapers and she leaves Fowler for him.
Pyle is a CIA operative, posing as an economic development attache. Quoting an academic political theorist’s book, Pyle says Vietnam needs a “third force” to rid it of both the colonizing French and the Communists vying for power. He sets that in motion, having found a thug willing to use explosives to blow up a market. It’s clear that Pyle was involved as he tells Fowler that he had warned Phuong to stay away from the market that morning.
Fowler, despite declaring that he is neutral and only a reporter, visits a Mr. Heng, a Chinese man who is a Viet Minh member and sets in motion a plan that ends with the death of Pyle. Fowler can pretend that the agent will have some non-violent way to stop Pyle, but he is clearly willing to see Pyle killed.
After Pyle’s death, Phuong has moved back in with Fowler. The police have conducted an investigation and Fowler can account for his time the night Pyle was killed so no charges come his way. A surprise cable arrives from Mrs. Fowler to say she will grant him a divorce. Perhaps this is welcome news to him, perhaps not.
Pyle is hardly credible as a character, beginning with his name. His naiveté and stated belief that those killed in the market died for democracy were hardly rational. He was sure that marrying Phuong and taking her to America would save her from the degradation of living with Fowler.
Pyle is described as a “quiet American” because of the contrast with two oafish, loud Americans. Fowler is moved to give up his role as a neutral party and become an accessory to murder to stop the dangerous quiet American.
At some point it’s clear that Pyle’s belief that he is in love with Phuong and can save her, that is, make her an American, stands for his belief that he knows how to “save” Vietnam from both the French and the Viet Minh Communists. Such a metaphor seems clumsy and lacks subtlety.
It is painful to think about the American support of the French in Vietnam and the later support of the South Vietnamese government because of fear of Communism spreading throughout the region. While it’s hard to understate American guilt in this horror, the worldly-wise colonialist British contempt for naive Americans is not enlightening.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American, orig. published 1955, the local library copy was published by Penguin, 2004, 180 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the library in print, audio, and digitally.