The Quiet American by Graham Greene
Warning: the following review contains spoilers.
I’ve just finished reading The Quiet American by Graham Greene. I’m following Susan Hill’s Creative Writing course and she recommended reading one of four Graham Greene books and I chose The Quiet American because I’d heard of the Michael Caine movie and it didn’t sound so ‘catholic’. It took quite a while for me to get into the book, it’s very ‘male’ and being set in the Vietnam War, not something I’m particularly interested in, however even near the beginning of the book where it wasn’t grabbing my interest too much, I still felt an emotional involvement with the main characters when Pyle announced to Fowler that he wanted Fowler’s girl Phuong, I wanted to reach into the pages literally to slap Pyle. As the book continued I got more and more into it, so by the end I was actively enjoying it (I’m still not sure if I’m going to read any more Greene though).
The introduction to the book, by Zadie Smith, states that she thinks it’s an unfortunate lack of imagination on Greene’s part that the character of Phuong is not well fleshed out. I’ve read this criticism / desire that this character was more well developed else where to. But I think Phuong has been given enough ‘flesh’ as necessary, the book is not about her, even if Fowler and Pyle are competing over her. To both Fowler and Pyle, Phuong is more an object than a person, to Fowler she is someone to stop him from being lonely, to Fowler she is something innocent to protect and help him fulfil his ambition to be a family man. Neither Fowler or Pyle really seemed to be bothered most of the time about what Phuong really thought, as long as she was something to protect or provide company.
I loved how so much of the story was developed just through the conversation between Fowler and Pyle, this aspect of the book in particular is something I hope to learn from in my career as a writer.
I love books that give us an ethical dilemma, would you do what the character thought he had to do sort of thing and The Quiet American gives one hell of an ethical dilemma, when the originally seemingly harmless (although girl stealing) Pyle is discovered to be involved in a number of bomb plots where innocent civilians are maimed and killed. Fowler finds out after witnessing at first hand the effect of one of Pyle’s bombs and seeing amidst the carnage Pyle brush the causalities off as victims in the fight for democracy. Fowler discusses this with a Communist acquaintance, Mr. Heng, who tells him if he can just arrange for Pyle to be walking in a certain area at a certain area, he, Mr. Heng would be able to ‘discuss’ things with Pyle and ‘persuade’ him against any further action. Fowler knows that this probably means that Mr. Heng will kill Pyle and he is torn about setting up a dinner date with him at the restaurant instructed by Mr. Heng, knowing that if he does set up the dinner date, Pyle would almost certainly never make it to the dinner. Fowler questions his reasoning, is he really doing it because Pyle stole Phuong? Should he do it considering Pyle saved Fowler’s life? But at the end of the day Fowler realises that Pyle doesn’t see anything wrong about what he did with his bombs and there is only one way to stop him, as he couldn’t bring Pyle to the authorities. It raises the question would you do the same? To bring it into a more modern context, if you knew someone who was involved in say the 9/11 bombings and you knew he/she was going to do it again and this person thought their actions were ‘justifiable’ and there was no way you could bring them to the authorities, would you help another, almost equally morally dubious force get this person in the right place, at the right time, so that they could kill that person? I think, if I was absolutely certain and I was equally certain that the authorities couldn’t help, I’d probably help, I wouldn’t feel very good about it though.