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.
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.
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!