There isn’t any other author quite like Graham Greene. Often referred to as the “Catholic novelist’—a title he detested—for the ways his novels centered on questions of morality, each of Greene’s novels are complex and layered with varying degrees of good and evil: his characters attempt to balance within the moral system but often end up failing. That’s the magic of Greene’s work.He presents raw human development in a world of extremities, including war, love, and loss. One such novel is The Quiet American in which all of Greene’s characters’ beliefs surrounding how they define themselves and their world are challenged during the Vietnam War.
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Our protagonist and narrator, cynical British journalist Thomas Fowler, finds himself dealing with the ongoing guerilla conflict between the Viet Minh communists and the French colonial forces in Vietnam on a daily basis. Fowler lives his life in a slump, refusing to engage with others and claiming not to care about anything. However, he is very fond of his young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong—even if he is 30 years her senior. And that is how we find Fowler—having resided for years in the East, contemplating marriage with Phuong (even though he has a wife back in London), and avoiding any involvement in the war. But everything is flipped on its head once Fowler meets Alden Pyle—otherwise known as the quiet American. Pyle is a naive CIA operative, fresh out of Yale, and packed full of American principles of justice and democracy. Initially, Pyle is genuinely friendly to Fowler, and the two begin an unlikely friendship.
Through their interactions, both Fowler and Pyle become aware of the other’s position toward the Vietnam War. Where Pyle is hopeful, Fowler is realistic. But Pyle is impenetrable—having an unshakeable devotion to both the teachings of York Harding and his own “mission to save the world.” Simultaneously, a love triangle begins to form between Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong. As the war reaches its climax, tensions will rise, loyalties will be tested, and intentions will be revealed.
Read on for an excerpt from The Quiet American, and then download the book.
I had thought I would be only one week away from Saigon, but it was nearly three weeks before I returned. In the first place it proved more difficult to get out of the Phat Diem area than it had been to get in. The road was cut between Nam Dinh and Hanoi and aerial transport could not be spared for one reporter who shouldn’t have been there anyway. Then when I reached Hanoi the correspondents had been flown up for briefing on the latest victory and the plane that took them back had no seat left for me. Pyle got away from Phat Diem the morning he arrived: he had fulfilled his mission—to speak to me about Phuong, and there was nothing to keep him. I left him asleep when the mortar-fire stopped at five-thirty and when I returned from a cup of coffee and some biscuits in the mess he wasn’t there. I assumed that he had gone for a stroll—after punting all the way down the river from Nam Dinh a few snipers would not have worried him; he was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others. On one occasion—but that was months later—I lost control and thrust his foot into it, into the pain I mean, and I remember how he turned away and looked at his stained shoe in perplexity and said, ‘I must get a shine before I see the Minister.’ I knew then he was already forming his phrases in the style he had learnt from York Harding. Yet he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others, until that final night under the bridge to Dakow.
It was only when I returned to Saigon that I learnt how Pyle, while I drank my coffee, had persuaded a young naval officer to take him on a landing-craft which after a routine patrol dropped him surreptitiously at Nam Dinh. Luck was with him and he got back to Hanoi with his trachoma team twenty-four hours before the road was officially regarded as cut. When I reached Hanoi he had already left for the south, leaving me a note with the barman at the Press Camp.
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‘Dear Thomas,’ he wrote, ‘I can’t begin to tell you how swell you were the other night. I can tell you my heart was in my mouth when I walked into that room to find you.’ (Where had it been on the long boat-ride down the river?) ‘There are not many men who would have taken the whole thing so calmly. You were great, and I don’t feel half as mean as I did, now that I’ve told you.’ (Was he the only one that mattered? I wondered angrily, and yet I knew that he didn’t intend it that way. To him the whole affair would be happier as soon as he didn’t feel mean—I would be happier, Phuong would be happier, the whole world would be happier, even the Economic Attaché and the Minister. Spring had come to Indo-China now that Pyle was mean no longer.) ‘I waited for you here for twenty-four hours, but I shan’t get back to Saigon for a week if I don’t leave today, and my real work is in the south. I’ve told the boys who are running the trachoma teams to look you up—you’ll like them. They are great boys and doing a man-size job. Don’t worry in any way that I’m returning to Saigon ahead of you. I promise you I won’t see Phuong until you return. I don’t want you to feel later that I’ve been unfair in any way. Cordially yours, Alden.
Again that calm assumption that ‘later’ it would be I who would lose Phuong. Is confidence based on a rate of exchange? We used to speak of sterling qualities. Have we got to talk now about a dollar love? A dollar love, of course, would include marriage and Junior and Mother’s Day, even though later it might include Reno or the Virgin Islands or wherever they go nowadays for their divorces. A dollar love had good intentions, a clear conscience, and to Hell with everybody. But my love had no intentions: it knew the future. All one could do was try to make the future less hard, to break the future gently when it came, and even opium had its value there. But I never foresaw that the first future I would have to break to Phuong would be the death of Pyle.
I went—for I had nothing better to do—to the Press Conference. Granger, of course, was there. A young and too beautiful French colonel presided. He spoke in French and a junior officer translated. The French correspondents sat together like a rival football-team. I found it hard to keep my mind on what the colonel was saying: all the time it wandered back to Phuong and the one thought—suppose Pyle is right and I lose her: where does one go from here?
The interpreter said, ‘The colonel tells you that the enemy has suffered a sharp defeat and severe losses—the equivalent of one complete battalion. The last detachments are now making their way back across the Red River on improvised rafts. They are shelled all the time by the Air Force.’ The colonel ran his hand through his elegant yellow hair and, flourishing his pointer, danced his way down the long maps on the wall. An American correspondent asked, ‘What are the French losses?
The colonel knew perfectly well the meaning of the question—it was usually put at this stage of the conference, but he paused, pointer raised with a kind smile like a popular schoolmaster, until it was interpreted. Then he answered with patient ambiguity.
‘The colonel says our losses have not been heavy. The exact number is not yet known.’
This was always the signal for trouble. You would have thought that sooner or later the colonel would have found a formula for dealing with his refractory class, or that the headmaster would have appointed a member of his staff more efficient at keeping order.
‘Is the colonel seriously telling us,’ Granger said, ‘that he’s had time to count the enemy dead and not his own?’
Patiently the colonel wove his web of evasion, which he knew perfectly well would be destroyed again by another question. The French correspondents sat gloomily silent. If the American correspondents stung the colonel into an admission they would be quick to seize it, but they would not join in baiting their countryman.
‘The colonel says the enemy forces are being over-run. It is possible to count the dead behind the firing-line, but while the battle is still in progress you cannot expect figures from the advancing French units.’
‘It’s not what we expect,’ Granger said, ‘it’s what the Etat Major knows or not. Are you seriously telling us that platoons do not report their casualties as they happen by walkie-talkie?’
The colonel’s temper was beginning to fray. If only, I thought, he had called our bluff from the start and told us firmly that he knew the figures but wouldn’t say. After all it was their war, not ours. We had no God-given right to information. We didn’t have to fight Left-Wing deputies in Paris as well as the troops of Ho Chi Minh between the Red and the Black Rivers. We were not dying.
The colonel suddenly snapped out the information that French casualties had been in a proportion of one to three, then turned his back on us, to stare furiously at his map. These were his men who were dead, his fellow officers, belonging to the same class at St Cyr—not numerals as they were to Granger. Granger said, ‘Now we are getting somewhere,’ and stared round with oafish triumph at his fellows; the French with heads bent made their sombre notes.
‘That’s more than can be said in Korea,’ I said with deliberate misunderstanding, but I had only given Granger a new line.
‘Ask the colonel,’ he said, ‘what the French are going to do next? He says the enemy’s on the run across the Black River …’
‘Red River,’ the interpreter corrected him.’
‘I don’t care what the colour of the river is. What we want to know is what the French are going to do now.’
‘The enemy are in flight.’
‘What happens when they get to the other side? What are you going to do then? Are you just going to sit down on the other bank and say that’s over?’ The French officers listened with gloomy patience to Granger’s bullying voice. Even humility is required today of the soldier. ‘Are you going to drop them Christmas cards?’
The captain interpreted with care, even to the phrase, ‘cartes de Noël.’ The colonel gave us a wintry smile. ‘Not Christmas cards,’ he said.
I think the colonel’s youth and beauty particularly irritated Granger. The colonel wasn’t—at least not by Granger’s interpretation—a man’s man. He said, ‘You aren’t dropping much else.’
The colonel spoke suddenly in English, good English. He said, ‘If the supplies promised by the Americans had arrived, we should have more to drop.’ He was really in spite of his elegance a simple man. He believed that a newspaper correspondent cared for his country’s honour more than for news. Granger said sharply (he was efficient: he kept dates well in his head), ‘You mean that none of the supplies promised for the beginning of September have arrived?’
Granger had got his news: he began to write.
‘I am sorry,’ the colonel said, ‘that is not for printing: that is for background.’
‘But colonel,’ Granger protested, ‘that’s news. We can help you there.’
‘No, it is a matter for the diplomats.’
‘What harm can it do?’
The French correspondents were at a loss: they could speak very little English. The colonel had broken the rules. They muttered angrily together.
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‘I am no judge,’ the colonel said. ‘Perhaps the American newspapers would say, “Oh, the French are always complaining, always begging.” And in Paris the Communists would accuse, “The French are spilling their blood for America and America will not even send a second-hand helicopter.” It does no good. At the end of it we should still have no helicopters, and the enemy would still be there, fifty miles from Hanoi.’
‘At least I can print that can’t I, that you need helicopters bad?’
‘You can say,’ the colonel said, ‘that six months ago we had three helicopters and now we have one. One,’ he repeated with a kind of amazed bitterness. ‘You can say that if a man is wounded in this fighting, not seriously wounded, just wounded, he knows that he is probably a dead man. Twelve hours, twenty-four hours perhaps, on a stretcher to the ambulance, then bad tracks, a breakdown, perhaps an ambush, gangrene. It is better to be killed outright.’ The French correspondents leant forward, trying to understand. ‘You can write that,’ he said, looking all the more venomous for his physical beauty. ‘Interprètez,’ he ordered, and walked out of the room leaving the captain the unfamiliar task of translating from English into French.
‘Got him on the raw,’ said Granger with satisfaction, and he went into a corner by the bar to write his telegram. Mine didn’t take long: there was nothing I could write from Phat Diem that the censors would pass. If the story had seemed good enough I could have flown to Hong Kong and sent it from there, but was any news good enough to risk expulsion? I doubted it. Expulsion meant the end of a whole life, it meant the victory of Pyle, and there, when I returned to my hotel, waiting in my pigeon-hole, was in fact his victory, the end of the affair—a congratulatory telegram of promotion. Dante never thought up that turn of the screw for his condemned lovers. Paolo was never promoted to Purgatory.
I went upstairs to my bare room and the dripping cold-water tap (there was no hot water in Hanoi) and sat on the edge of my bed with the bundle of the mosquito-net like a swollen cloud overhead. I was to be the new foreign editor, arriving every afternoon at half past three, at that grim Victorian building near Blackfriars station with a plaque of Lord Salisbury by the lift. They had sent the good news on from Saigon, and I wondered whether it had already reached Phuong’s ears. I was to be a reporter no longer: I was to have opinions, and in return for that empty privilege I was deprived of my last hope in the contest with Pyle. I had experience to match his virginity, age was as good a card to play in the sexual game as youth, but now I hadn’t even the limited future of twelve more months to offer, and a future was trumps. I envied the most homesick officer condemned to the chance of death. I would have liked to weep, but the ducts were as dry as the hot-water pipes. Oh, they could have home—I only wanted my room in the rue Catinat.
It was cold after dark in Hanoi and the lights were lower than those of Saigon, more suited to the darker clothes of the women and the fact of war. I walked up the rue Gambetta to the Pax Bar—I didn’t want to drink in the Metropole with the senior French officers, their wives and their girls, and as I reached the bar I was aware of the distant drumming of the guns out towards Hoa Binh. In the day they were drowned in traffic-noises, but everything was quiet now except for the tring of bicycle-bells where the trishaw drivers plied for hire. Pietri sat in his usual place. He had an odd elongated skull which sat on his shoulders like a pear on a dish; he was a Sureté officer and was married to a pretty Tonkinese who owned the Pax Bar. He was another man who had no particular desire to go home. He was a Corsican, but he preferred Marseilles, and to Marseilles he preferred any day his seat on the pavement in the rue Gambetta. I wondered whether he already knew the contents of my telegram.
‘Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un?’ he asked.
We began to throw and it seemed impossible to me that I could ever have a life again, away from the rue Gambetta and the rue Catinat, the flat taste of vermouth cassis, the homely click of dice, and the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon.
I said, ‘I’m going back.’
‘Home?’ Pietri asked, throwing a four-to-one.
Want to keep reading? Download The Quiet American today.
The Quiet American, which has been adapted twice—originally in 1958 and then again in 2002—was inspired by Greene’s time in French Indochina and often draws from some of his experiences as a war correspondent. The novel became widely popular and received critical acclaim—especially after it accurately predicted the outcome of the Vietnam War and the ensuing American foreign policy.
The intricacies in The Quiet American have made it difficult to neatly categorize the novel. Is it simply a wartime spy novel with a sprinkle of a love story? Or is it really an allegory of French colonialism and American involvement in the Vietnam war? Most would agree that it is the latter, and have alluded to Pyle as a representation of American exceptionalism: he is fully armed with his own theories on governments and societies, and is determined to impart them to the Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, Fowler stands in Vietnam, not taking sides and rejecting any ideology. Instead, he becomes a spectator and watches with fascination as France and the United States confront communism in Vietnam. He is left to tease and mock Pyle’s hope of nurturing and arming a third force to defend itself against communism.
The Quiet American remains a timeless novel as Greene flawlessly portrays all the features of humanity. Greene constantly compares and contrasts the hopes and failures of Phuong, Pyle, and Fowler. At the end, we find—despite our best intentions of neutrality—that we share, in part, Pyle’s innocence, Fowler’s disengagement, and Phuong’s corruption.
Want more Graham Greene? Read an excerpt from Twenty-One Stories.
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