The Quiet American by Graham Greene

The emperor is dead, long live the emperor…

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Thomas Fowler is a veteran journalist who’s been stationed for some years in Vietnam, reporting on the rising violence as France tries to cling on to its colony and America’s involvement is growing. The story begins when Fowler is told of the death of Alden Pyle, a young American attaché who had arrived in Saigon a few months earlier. Fowler then tells us the history of his relationship with Pyle – acquaintanceship, perhaps friendship, certainly rivalry. For Pyle had stolen Fowler’s young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, promising marriage and entry to the glamorous American world of skyscrapers and fashion that Phuong had read about in magazines. And along the way Greene shows us old colonialism giving way to the new American mission to use its wealth and military might to westernize and democratize the world, whether the world likes it or not.

When I read the blurb, I wondered why the book had been considered “controversial”, and now having read it, I assume it’s because of the anti-Americanism that runs through it. To be honest, for a Brit of my generation and political leanings, that isn’t exactly controversial – it’s quite a mainstream position, and one that exists just as much, or perhaps even more, today as back in the early 1950s when this book is set. Anti-Americanism is the wrong term, really; it’s more anti-US foreign policy – a belief that the US blunders into situations around the world that it doesn’t understand, values non-American life cheaply in pursuit of its aim to create an American hegemony, and then retreats, its own nose bloodied, leaving the people in a worse state than they were in before the Americans arrived. (And sadly America’s allies, especially the UK, tend to allow the US to drag them into their military catastrophes.) Greene wrote this book before the Vietnam war, but he clearly saw the writing on the wall and uses Pyle as a metaphor for the sometimes well-meaning but always fundamentally ruthless and self-interested policies the US has pursued since it decided to declare itself the “leader of the free world” after the Second World War.

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However, old-style European colonialism fares no better. Greene shows it in its death throes, desperately trying to retain control of the colonies it still possesses, but gradually being forced into retreat, leaving the field open for the new superpowers to move in. The particular European empire in the book is the French, but Greene is clearly including all the old European empires in his critique. Fowler’s weary cynicism and fatalism about the future is as much a metaphor for tired and war-ravaged old Europe as Pyle is for brash young America. In their actions there’s not much to choose between them, but Europe, Greene seems to be suggesting, is finally learning the futility of trying to maintain its control over other peoples just at the point where the US has decided it will rule the world and impose its values and culture across the globe at the point of a gun. The question hangs unspoken in the Saigon air – how many lives are a price worth paying for the ideology of “freedom”? Pyle makes it clear that there’s no upper limit, so long, of course, as they’re not American lives.

Fortunately there’s an excellent human story to stop all this heavyweight political stuff from becoming too much. We learn of Pyle’s death in the first pages, and then go back to his arrival in Saigon as a seeming innocent. But he has more depth than first appears and Fowler is reluctantly drawn into a kind of intimacy with him because of Phuong, the young woman whom both men care about, though in different ways. Vietnam is in the midst of conflict with various factions fighting for power, sometimes with the overt or covert support of the various colonialist powers. Terrorist acts are a daily occurrence, and Greene shows the constant anxiety, the fear and the grief of living in a society in turmoil. And he shows the uncaring cruelty of those vying for power towards the people they use as pawns in their games.

Graham Greene

Most of all I feel it’s a wonderful character study of Fowler – a man whose cynicism is founded on age and experience, whose career as a journalist reporting from the trouble spots of the world has allowed him to see humanity at its worst and has left him wary of those who believe they have the right or the power to impose their culture and control on others. Pyle and Phuong are shown to us only through Fowler’s eyes, but he is an honest observer, able to see the strengths and weaknesses in both of them and, indeed, in himself. And eventually we learn what led to Pyle’s death.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Simon Cadell. While his narration is good overall, it has some weaknesses, not least that he sometimes seems to forget that Pyle is American. It’s also an older recording and the sound quality is not great – the volume dips and rises, and sometimes it’s a bit fuzzy. This is one case where I would recommend reading rather than listening, unless you can find a better narration. The book itself, though, is wonderful – undoubtedly one of Greene’s best and therefore highly recommended!

Audible UK Link

40 thoughts on “The Quiet American by Graham Greene

  1. You do really get to see some of the consequences of the US foreign policy here, FictionFan. And that’s precisely why a lot of US schools, etc. considered the book (still do, actually, in some cases) controversial. That aside, I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I keep saying that the best way to understand a time, place, event is to see through the eyes of people who live it. The characters and their experiences really keep the story going, if that makes sense.

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    • I can quite see why it was considered controversial on the other side of the pond! But I do think he’s as critical of the old colonialists too, though maybe less overtly. I was interested to learn that he spent some time himself as a journalist in Vietnam at that period – no doubt that’s why the setting feels so authentic. I hope he wasn’t as world-weary as the journalist in this though!

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    • For some reason I hadn’t read it before either, despite having gone through a phase of devouring Greene in my twenties. It’s definitely up there with his best though!

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  2. Ouch! Not sure I’d want to try this one. All that controversy and political upheaval (gee, so many things have started with good intentions and ended poorly, haven’t they?). That said, I enjoyed reading your review and am glad you found this one worthwhile.

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    • Yes, we in the west have a habit of jumping into things and then messing them up on the way back out, haven’t we? This is definitely one of his most overtly political books, but the main story is still very human.

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  3. It’s sad to think that, considering this was written so long ago, things haven’t changed very much over the decades. I mean similar interference and blundering, and almost similar consequences. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but noting your warning on the audio version. I’ll stick to the text when I do get down to a revisit

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    • I know. I couldn’t help thinking of Afghanistan while I was reading it, and the mess we left it in again. You’d think we’d learn from our mistakes. I suspect I’ll re-read this on paper in the not-too-distant future. I think it’s one that will benefit from reading rather than listening.

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    • Haha, I popped across and read your review – and the comments! I remember reviewing a book about Israel once, and one of my commenters took offense and lectured me at great length! So I lectured him back. He doesn’t visit any more… 😂 Sometimes reviewing books about political situations is a minefield… 😉

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    • I read tons of his stuff in my twenties, or so I thought, but I keep finding ones I missed which is a real treat! Some of his language and attitudes are dated now, of course, but rarely to a point where it bothers me. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of him as I do, if you get to him some time!

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  4. Well I’m glad you clarified that bit about being “anti-American”! 😉 I’m just not sure if this is one I’d enjoy or not. You know me…. I’m not into conflict OR politics! I’m married to a Vietnam vet and I’ll have to ask if he ever read this back in the day.

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    • Haha, I’m only anti-American some of the time. But then I’m anti-British some of the time too! I think it depends on how much chocolate I’ve had that day… 😉 I think you’d love this! You know me, it’s always the politics I harp on about in my reviews. But first and foremost this is about the three people, Fowler, Pyle and Phuong and it’s a kind of love story but not a romance. And although there are some bits about the war, mostly it’s happening off the page. Don’t let my review put you off!

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  5. I always had the idea that Graham Greene’s books would be too serious for me to enjoy, but maybe it is time to give his work a try.
    Australia is also guilty of following the USA places where we shouldn’t interfere.

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    • I think I probably add to that by always concentrating on the political aspects, but really they’re always far more about the people than the politics, and he draws his people so beautifully. I think you might really enjoy him. I think he’s a wonderful writer!
      Yes, I’m afraid the whole of NATO seems to just go wherever America tells us to – makes me mad!

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      • I realised after I commented that I read Brighton Rock by Graham Greene! Although the plot is so very different to The Quiet American the two books could almost have been written by different authors.
        Your comment about NATO reminded me of one of my favourite stories from Love, Actually where Hugh Grant playing the British PM told the visiting American President enough was enough!

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        • Haha, I wish our PMs would do that a bit more often!
          The subject matter of his books is always very different, but there’s a similarity in the sympathetic way he treats his damaged characters. That’s what stops them ever from becoming too political, or too religious – his humans are full of humanity!

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  6. Having been astonished by how much I admired and enjoyed Brighton Rock – narrated by Samuel West who did a fine job – and having seen the film of this one, I’m thinking I might give this a try. Almost certainly on audio though and audible have only the Cadell version. It’s quite short – maybe I could try reading it … I’ll spend a few years pondering 🤔

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    • I loved both Brighton Rock and Samuel West’s narration! I recently listened to him reading a Thomas Hardy novel and thought he did a fine job with it too. I suspect you might love this one even more – it’s softer somehow, and despite all the politics and war and stuff, it’s less bleak, I think. Don’t be put off the Cadell recording if you’d rather listen than read. It was pretty good overall – certainly good enough for me to stick with it and not feel I had to revert to paper. It’s just maybe not quite as good as it could have been. Certainly listenable!

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  7. I’m glad you enjoyed this – I still have it on my list of unread Greenes, and now I shall know to look forward to it! He’s definitely one of the writers I find most interesting writing about the changes in global politics during that period. This sounds great!

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    • I really must make a list of unread Greenes. I thought I’d read most of them in my twenties, but I’ve realised recently that there are loads more than I thought. I love his political themes, especially since I tend to agree with him most of the time! I used to love the Catholic novels too, but I find them a bit less convincing now – a sign of my own deeper cynicism I expect!

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  8. This sounds incredibly dark of me, but I sort of like when we discover the main characters’ death at the beginning of the book. It lends a kind of seriousness that I enjoy, like everything becomes more important and intense…

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  9. I read this within the last year for the first time and quite enjoyed it though it’s not one of my favourites from him. I was frustrated by how little we actually saw of Phuong herself or what she wanted though of course that is probably realistic of the time and place. I didn’t think of the book as anti-American but I’m also very used to viewing the American role in Vietnam in the 20th century as very negative.

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    • Yes, I feel Greene often leaves his females underdeveloped unless they’re central characters, but oddly in this case I felt it worked quite well, seeing Phuong as a kind of metaphor for the colonised, with the two empire metaphors of the Brit and the American deciding her fate between them without much reference to her wishes. If that makes any sense! Not sure that’s what Greene intended, though…

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      • You’re right, she is kind of a metaphor for the country itself. I guess I just wanted her to be more of a person. I read The Human Factor this summer and thinking of it now in comparison with this book, that has a much more developed female character, I think.

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        • I’m not sure if I ever read The Human Factor – my main period of Greene reading was so long ago I often don’t know if I’ve read them till I start reading them again! But it’s on my list. I’d really like to work through his whole output this time and catch the ones I’ve missed before.

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