The innocent abroad, in all his folly
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.
Various Americans, irritated at seeing their metaphorical selves, have questioned Pyle’s credibility as an American, the verisimilitude of his character and speech. It is certainly true that while Washington, D.C., was chockablock with Harvard-trained international studies majors, agents who smuggled plastiques into cities in which plastiques abounded would have tended to find their way into the CIA from the military rather than the Harvard Yard.
Pyle and all the American characters in “The Quiet American” speak with a straight man’s timing. That is, they do not understand or respond to the witticisms offered at their expense. For them, words cast no shadows; they are deaf to irony: Pyle, Bill Granger, all of them, stand mute before Fowler’s very cinematic wisecracks. Pyle and the others refuse to be drawn, like Margaret Dumont subjected to Groucho Marx. They persistently offer their puppyish friendship (“Do you mind if I call you Tom?”) in the face of Fowler’s insults.
The novel has several areas of focus. One is the existential dilemma of Fowler, alienated, still half in love with his wife back in England and consciously feeling himself her betrayer. Moreover, he is jealous of Pyle’s having replaced him in the beautiful Phuong’s attentions. There seems more pain and loss, more complexity in Fowler’s break with the offstage wife he claims not to love than in his attachment to Phuong. This is offered as a physical obsession but does not play as one, mainly because Phuong is a metaphorical figure and left uncharacterized.
The other characters in “The Quiet American” are the colorful denizens of a Conradian pre-Americanized Asia -- literate castaways, serene priests, a Portuguese half-caste -- noble professional soldiers of the French Empire. The many and varied power interests at play are shown in action, each side trying to use the other, on the lookout for weakness, guile or the main chance. In the realm of the personal, Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are a love triangle, three little people like those whose fortunes, said Humphrey Bogart’s Rick over in Casablanca, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
In the latter part of the novel, Pyle -- wretched, rash, intruding fool -- turns murderous in his feckless, ignorant scheming, and Fowler decides to intervene. Fowler’s jealousy over Phuong is a complicating motive, necessary to illustrate the impossibility of a purely disinterested act in this fallen world. Essentially, when Fowler acts it is because, a wise French general tells him in an opium den, “one must take a stand. If one is to remain human.”
Someone once asked Greene whether Fowler had set Pyle up falsely purely out of jealousy over Phuong. Perhaps the questioner was reacting to Fowler’s transparent satisfaction in the act, disclaimed by the character, but indulged by the author.
Along with his insight into a fallen world, Greene maintained a lifelong capacity for rage. It is expressed in his virtuoso torrents of sarcasm and loathing -- and even in a fondness for practical jokes. There is no question that this capacity for hatred enriched his prose. Fowler (sounding very much like Greene) insists that Pyle’s trouble is his innocence. Indeed, innocence is a problem for all the Americans in the novel and more of a problem for those who have to deal with them.
“What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”
The judgment is downright Brechtian in its ferocity.
How true to life is the plot? In the small sense, it is false. The bombing described in “The Quiet American,” in which bicycles with plastiques were set off in downtown Saigon, apparently involved the Cao Dao sect. American historians deny the CIA was involved, and even in the novel a motive is undetectable. But in the larger sense, the Vietnamese gave their lives to fulfill the ambitions and “tough-mindedness” of American schemers, the McNamaras, the Bundys, the Rostows and the Colbys. I do not believe the word “innocent,” even in Greene’s elusive definition, can be applied to them.
It is also possible to dismiss the characterization of Pyle. Assertions of American complicity with the bombers of Saigon in January 1952 do not really hold up. How is it then that every experienced American commentator on Vietnam to one degree or another admires “The Quiet American”? Fifty years after it was written, nearly three decades after the Vietnam War, it remains one of the great novels of the anti-colonial struggle and the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, American journalists presented it to each other on arrival “in-country.”
For one thing, it is a model of the realist novel in the post-Conradian mode. Its story unfolds with a wonderful expertness and with the greatest economy. Its descriptive passages, its sense of Vietnam and Saigon, are richly pleasurable.
The condemnation of human sacrifices to America’s materialistic, ignorant anticommunism is in keeping with Greene’s Jansenist Catholicism. Fowler’s sudden enthusiasm for “humanity” is not and may strike some readers as cant. But the metaphorical power of “The Quiet American” is undeniable; it carries a weight of truth that America and American readers will have to live with. Greene witnessed the beginning of a terrible mistake, a deadly mistake, the mistake of a great power armed to the teeth attempting to inflict its will in a part of the world to whose language and gestures it was tone-deaf.
Indeed, the real Alden Pyles were the smart, articulate, Vietnamese-speaking American agents sowing their youthful wild oats upcountry later in the war. There were many young men in “special programs” blinded by vanity, youthful machismo and egotism that some may have mistaken for idealism, bent on proving themselves in a treacherous war. It is not true that they never learned cunning. They were corrupted by the power war gave them and they brought dreadful misfortune on others and on themselves.
Today highly educated young men have again set out to remake the world, to visit war on people of whom they know little. How can we deny the truth “The Quiet American” contains? *