Graham Greene (1904 -91) hovers near the top of any list of the twentieth century’s most readable and insightful spy novelists. He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 and 1967, confirming his bona fides as an author who roamed far outside the limits of genre. And of his more than two dozen novels, The Quiet American is widely recognized as among the handful that retain their power more than half a century later. In its portrayal of a hopelessly naive CIA officer who blindly follows a warped ideological view of the insurrection against the French in Indochina, this classic Vietnam novel proved prophetic just a decade later, as the United States stumbled headlong into a profoundly misguided war there.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1955) 232 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Half-baked theories with disastrous consequences
The Quiet American is set in Vietnam during the desperate French effort to remain in control in the face of a nationalist rebellion they didn’t understand. Chaos reigned. Private armies and drug traffickers freely operated during the war between the French and the Vietminh. As Greene describes it, “This was a land of rebellious barons. It was like Europe in the Middle Ages.” But if the French were tone-deaf to realities on the ground, a newly arriving American is even more naive. Alden Pyle works out of the Economic Aid Mission in the US Embassy, but it soon becomes clear that he is an officer of the (unnamed) CIA. A committed anti-colonialist, Pyle is determined to advance the half-baked “Third Force” theory professed by some scholars and journalists at the time. In all innocence, hoping to supplant both the colonialists and the Communists, he supplies arms to a corrupt warlord named General Thé — with predictably disastrous consequences.
“Let them fight, let them love, let them murder”
Greene’s alter ego, the narrator of the tale, is a cynical veteran journalist named Thomas Fowler. “It had been an article of my creed,” Fowler writes. “The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved.” (In fact, to be fair, Greene himself worked for MI6 during World War II.) But Pyle attaches himself to Fowler, and in short order they find themselves in competition for Fowler’s beautiful young Vietnamese lover, Phuong. And Pyle has several advantages in Phuong’s eyes: he is much younger, he stands to inherit a small fortune, and he wants to marry her. Fowler has a wife in England who refuses to divorce him. We learn all this through flashbacks described by Fowler, as Pyle has turned up dead early in the story.
A prophetic classic novel about war in Vietnam
Greene illustrates the ideological conflict between the two men, bringing to light a perspective shared by millions of Vietnamese. “They don’t want Communism,” Pyle insists. Fowler responds, “They want enough rice . . . They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling them what they want.” This exchange could just as easily have been staged ten or fifteen years later when another occupying power was wreaking havoc on the countryside.
This post was updated on October 20, 2020.
For additional reading
Check out a much more recent but equally brilliant novel about Vietnam, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes), which won the Pulitzer Prize. I’ve also reviewed Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse (A wrenching view of how the U.S. military fought the Vietnam War).
This is one of two of the author’s books I’ve reviewed. The other is The Comedians (Expatriates observe Haiti’s reign of terror in a classic Graham Greene novel).
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- The 10 top espionage novels reviewed on this site;
- 20 good nonfiction books about espionage; and
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series.
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