Earlier this year I was in Prague visiting a friend of mine. My personal circumstances haven’t been the best for the last twelve months and I had slipped into a state of deep depression without realising it. The purpose of this trip was to get away from everything, to drink a lot and lose myself in that beautiful city. One afternoon my friend and I were in a bar, six drinks deep and thrillingly relaxed. That is, until a group of Americans arrived. They took the table behind us, and began to fight for each other’s attention like a bunch of rambunctious puppies. ‘I hate them,’ my friend said quietly, and at first I thought he meant only this particular group, until he followed up with ‘fucking Americans, I can’t stand them.’ It wasn’t the first time I had heard someone dismiss an entire nation, but I was still surprised by this passionate outburst. Of course, I was aware of the stereotype of the brash and grossly impolite and uncultured American, but I had never really given it much thought, and, with ‘yanks’ being in short supply in Sheffield, I certainly hadn’t before heard such vitriol directed at them. ‘They’ve probably come over here to start a war,’ my friend seethed.
Since returning from Prague, and now particularly sensitive to it, I have come to realise that this negative stereotype is fairly common amongst the English, and this was at least partly the reason why I have been so interested in reading Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American. It is worth noting in this regard that the title itself could be interpreted as a sly form of mockery, in that it speaks with an element of surprise, as though a quiet American is a rare thing. The American in question is Alden Pyle, a young man with an ‘unused face’, who arrives in war-stricken Vietnam, seemingly as some kind of charity or aid worker, and quickly befriends an Englishman, Thomas Fowler, and his native girlfriend, Phuong. This triangle comes to dominate the novel, and has both political and personal repercussions.
The Quiet American is narrated by Fowler, and he describes Pyle numerous times as naïve and innocent. Moreover, the young man himself admits that he lacks experience, especially with women. In his early interactions with Phuong he is excessively polite. He pulls out her chair for her in a bar and, as they sit around a table, he objects to what he considers to be indiscreet conversation, the kind not suitable for a woman’s ears. It is clear that for Pyle women, or Vietnamese women at least, ought to be protected, that he sees them as delicate creatures or even almost as children. Indeed, he is disproportionately affected when one of his fellow countrymen visits a brothel. This man, Granger, is the archetypal loud American, a straight-talking, bullish and arrogant Philadelphian, with whom Fowler occasionally locks horns.
While it seems as though Pyle is a sweet, harmless, candid, heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy, with his whole life ahead of him, Fowler is an ageing journalist with a developing paunch and a wife back in England. In contrast to his starry-eyed young friend, Fowler’s predominant attitude is a kind of disgruntled world-weariness. Indeed, he claims to only want 18 year old Phuong in order to fight off the loneliness of old-age. To this end, the arrival of Pyle is the worst thing that could have happened to him, because his new friend falls in love with her and becomes intent on marrying her. Predictably, Pyle’s love for Phuong is idealistic, as is his approach to his rival. He claims that he wants to do the right and honourable thing, for example, he undergoes extreme danger in order to go to Fowler and reveal to him his feelings for the man’s girlfriend. Significantly, both in terms of understanding Pyle and the novel as a whole, Fowler asks him why he doesn’t just leave without telling Phuong about his love, why he doesn’t want to avoid causing trouble, and Pyle responds by saying that this wouldn’t be fair.
“I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.”
For Alden Pyle the consequences of his actions are less important than his intention. His intention is to do the right thing, and so if people get hurt that is simply an unfortunate, regrettable, but unavoidable form of collateral damage. What is paramount is that he acted in accordance with his principles. Fowler, on the other hand, understands that things are never that clear cut, that a good man trying to do good can, as a result, do bad things, can cause harm, which in this instance would be to hurt Fowler and possibly Phuong also. I found all this fascinating. One never doubts that Pyle is in earnest, that he is on the level, that he is a nice guy, he is simply “impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.” His chief character flaw is refusing to accept, or to see, the world as it is.
I wrote earlier about personal and political repercussions, and it is interesting, and satisfying, how Greene uses this love triangle to mirror the political situation in the country. Both Pyle and Fowler are outsiders, or invaders if you like, fighting over a Vietnamese, and while the American may be frequently described as innocent, the only real innocent in the situation is Phuong, who comes to represent the ordinary civilian during the war. Moreover, it is not surprising that Pyle brings the same attitude towards his job, which, we come to realise, is not as an aid worker, but a kind of terrorist working for the American government. Again, Pyle’s dangerous idealism, his naivety, means that he harms while trying to do good or he justifies harm in the name of what is good. The line between terrorist and liberator is, for him, not a thin one, it is clear and pronounced. Greene’s point appears to be that this is the American mind-set, that America wades into conflicts with the best intentions in the world, without comprehending the extent of the damage they are causing or likely to cause.
“Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
However, while I can see why he thought this, and I agree to an extent, I, ironically, think he was being too naive himself [unless of course I have misunderstood him]. In terms of individual soldiers, then, yes, I’ve met quite a few and they have all been absolutely convinced that what they are doing – in Iraq, Afghanistan etc – is entirely positive, that they are helping these poor downtrodden countries, that they are bringing democracy to them, and that this is a wonderful thing, even if they have to kill thousands of innocent people in order to do it. What I don’t accept is that the real people in power in America, the people who sanction these conflicts, who send these individuals into these countries, are like Pyle, I don’t buy that they are the Goofy, ‘aw shucks’ variety. I believe that the people who sanction war know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Power, greed, money, these are the things that drive foreign policy. Oh sure, we’ll get told that, for example, communism is a threat to world security, but the real threat it poses is to certain people’s bank balances; likewise, human rights violations are never the reason we engage. The American [and British] government don’t give a single, shiny fuck about human rights violations.
One further potential flaw with The Quiet American is that the friendship between the two men comes across as forced, certainly on Pyle’s side. He speaks about Fowler being his best friend, even though they have known each other for only a very short time. He compliments the man frequently and claims to understand him, to such an extent that it just does not ring true. However, this isn’t necessarily a failure of Greene’s, it could be justified in line with the book’s themes. Isn’t Pyle’s insistence that Fowler is a good man, that the men have bonded and are great friends, a sign of his immaturity? One could even argue that it is the arrogance of the American, one that believes that he can make friends so easily and can understand other people better than they understand themselves. In terms of Fowler, his affection makes sense. He appreciates Pyle’s wide-eyed approach to life, which is so different from his own; but he never considers them to be bosom buddies like Pyle does.
I’ve written a lot about Pyle in this review, and I do think that he is a wonderful creation, but, for me, it is through Fowler that Greene raises the most engaging and important question. As previously noted, he is in Vietnam to report on the war between the French and the Viet Mihn communist-nationalist revolutionaries. Fowler, according to himself, steadfastly refuses to take sides, going so far as to say that he has no opinions on what is happening in the country. As The Quiet American pushes on towards its moving conclusion, Greene asks ‘is it possible to not become involved? Can you watch people being killed and not have an opinion?’ This is something that I ask of people all the time, most recently with the refugee crisis. Can you remain neutral in the face of overwhelming suffering? I know I can’t. And neither, ultimately, can Fowler, who is forced to throw off his moral cowardice and act. I won’t reveal what he does, or the consequences of what he does, but it is worth noting that the decision to act is justified in almost exactly the same way that Pyle justifies his own actions, in that it involves the sacrifice of life for, the argument states, the greater good. Perhaps then the only thing one can say with any certainty where war is concerned is that there are no absolutes, no easy answers, it is, and will remain, a messy, horrible, horrifying state of affairs. Much like love, I guess.