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The innocent abroad, in all his folly

The Quiet American A Novel Graham Greene Penguin Classics: 208 pp., $14 paper

August 29, 2004|Robert Stone | Robert Stone is the author of many books, including the novels "Damascus Gate" and "Bay of Souls." A longer version of this essay will appear as the introduction to a new edition of "The Quiet American," to be published by Penguin Classics in September.

The title of Graham Greene's 1955 Vietnam novel, "The Quiet American," as others have pointed out, is a joke. The eponymous character is not quiet. Like all the Americans who appear in its deft, succinct story, Alden Pyle is a prattling fool. Pyle (Greene was good with names and their associations) goes on to illustrate the joke's unspoken punch line: The only quiet American is a dead American.

It was Greene's fortune, as a member of the British Empire's administrative class, to witness the rise of American influence in the world. The sense of imperial mission left him sentimental and proprietary about what we still call today the Third World. Americans had a way of showing up under palm and pine, from the deliciously opium-laced dream streets of the Far East to the heart of London itself, flattening the ambience with their uninflected, irrepressible observations. From the sensitive traveler's point of view, it was a case of literally not knowing one's place.

In "The Quiet American" the foolishness of Americans (what more polite Europeans referred to as their lack of background), their over-confiding chatter and Hollywood sensibility, is offered as an insight into the origins of American policy in Asia.

"One is impressed by Greene's nostalgia," wrote Anthony Burgess, "for the Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, John Buchan hero pursuing the cause of British decency in some fever-ridden outpost."

If we were to examine "The Quiet American" in the light of Burgess' remarks, the "fever-ridden outpost" is Saigon before the withdrawal of the French, during the fighting that ended in their stand and defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Though he denies it, the cause of "decency" is in the shaky hands of the British journalist Thomas Fowler, a drinker and opium smoker living adulterously with Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress.

Despite his weakness for clouding the fallen world around him, Fowler's perception is his dynamic. He is a conscientious working journalist, his private desperation notwithstanding. He knows his story, and not being unduly attached to his life is ready to put it on the line in that story's earnest pursuit. Yet, until the events of the novel unfold, he sees himself as outside the battle. Fowler is the narrator, and the only sentient presence, the only multidimensional character in the novel.

The two other principals, Phuong and Pyle, are present as metaphors and as soldiers of the plot, which is lively and Conradian, actually more well made and adroit than in anything by Greene's master. Phuong has a pretty little head which she fills with proto-tabloid celebrity gossip and interesting facts about the British royals. Childishly, she has transferred her affections to Pyle, the representative of a stronger foreign presence and one able to provide for her more generously.

There is less to her than to her conniving sister Miss Hei, who schemes through Phuong to attach the family to a useful foreigner. Hei appears very briefly, but her character and interests are well defined. Phuong is a device; she might be described as the love interest.

Pyle is just one of the novel's Americans. All of these are innocent, Pyle most of all. To be innocent is to be bumptious and stupid, rude, provincial, inconsiderate; well intentioned but at the same time conscienceless and murderous. Pyle is a CIA agent new to the country, and the third corner of the novel's triangle. Pyle knows only what he has read, but he has murderous plans or orders to back a Third Force which will be anti-French, anticommunist and pro-American.

If Phuong stands for the eternally complacent East, like the water buffalo who appears on the road to Tan Yin, indifferent to the foreign empire builders who come and go, Pyle, equipped with apparently fatuous books he has read at Harvard, stands for what Greene has chosen to define here as American innocence.

"I never met a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," says Fowler of Pyle.

Since what Greene insistently calls American "innocence" seems to be the absence of any kind of inner life, many of Greene's American readers, who imagine for themselves a certain interior existence, dislike it. On the other hand, as though to vindicate Greene's distinctly comic vision, other Americans embrace it, professing to recognize in it a dead-on portrayal of the people they must endure as compatriots day after day. Without question, it rang carillons of recognition and delight in Britain, Europe and Latin America, implying things that many people, not only those on the left, recognized.

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