Sunday, April 11, 2010

*The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (2004)
originally published 1955

The Quiet American is a somewhat metaphorical novel which  should be read in the context of the political scene in Vietnam before 1954.  At the time in which this novel is set, the Vietnamese are still under French colonial rule.  The nationalists (the Communist Vietminh), have been fighting to take back the country for some time under the leadership of a returned Ho Chi Minh, and the French are losing their bid to keep control.

Reporting the conflicts in Vietnam for the British press is Thomas Fowler, who has been in Saigon now for some time.  Fowler, who narrates the story, claims to be neutral: he says that he does not take sides, get involved or make judgments, but rather just reports the news when the government will let him. He’s a self-proclaimed isolationist.  He lives with Phuong, a young Vietnamese girl, but is still married back home in England, although he’s asked for a divorce from his Catholic wife who continues to refuse him. Into Fowler’s world comes Alden Pyle, “Quiet American” of the title.  Pyle is a Harvard Grad, and is in the country to work ostensibly under the Economic Attaché.  He has adopted the ideas of a theorist named York Harding about  necessity of intervention in Asia, and sees the need to establish a so-called “third force” in Vietnam to replace both French colonialism and the Communists. He has already settled on a General Thé, the leader of an  insurgency group called the Caodists, who has “taken to the hills to fight both sides, the French, the Communists…” (17). Pyle envisions Thé taking power and  settling Vietnam into being a democratic country and helping to prevent the Communist dominoes from falling. According to Pyle, the Vietnamese want to live in a democracy.   While Fowler finds Pyle to be a bit naïve, and argues that most peasants don’t sit in their huts at night thinking about democracy and ideologies, he has to start taking him more seriously when Pyle decides he wants Phuong for himself.  Fowler knows that the younger, more affluent American has more to offer Phuong in material terms, but he’s become comfortable with the way things are. Pyle’s very existence in Saigon threatens Fowler in ways he never realized. But then again, Fowler is the narrator of this story, so beware.

Solid analyses of this novel are everywhere to be found on the Internet and in several books, so I won’t even attempt to go there, but interestingly, even though he was writing in 1955, Greene was able to foresee the quagmire caused by US intervention in Vietnamese politics.  Today one could easily apply his novel to the dangers of intervening in the politics of the Middle East or in the “third world” in general.

It’s an amazing book, definitely one not to be missed. Greene is one of those writers whose works you cannot forget once you’ve read them. Highly recommended and one of my favorites for this year.


  1. Wow! This book sounds amazing! I haven't heard of this before, but I wouldn't want to miss this one. Good review.

  2. You should also see the movie. It is outstanding. There are two versions -- a really old one (which I haven't seen), and one that was done I think in 2001 or 2002. The second one is excellent and really gives you a solid look at the story in the book.

    thanks for popping by!

  3. The only Greene I have read is Our Man in Havana, and I enjoyed reading that very much. I will have to check this one out - thanks for the review!

  4. You're welcome. Another good one of his is "The Human Factor." I have Our Man in Havana, but haven't read it yet.

  5. I read 3 of Graham Greene's books, this one, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the affair. The Quiet American is my all-time favourites, and I saw Fieldwork on your list too, which is another of my all time favourite (unfortunately read fieldwork before I had my blog, but will re-read it one day, it's so haunting...) Since we eat the same food, listed the same favourites.. are you by any chance from the same place that I come from? :D

  6. Jovenus, I'd love to go look at your blog but how do I get there?

  7. You can click on my name on your blog it should bring you there.

    Otherwise you can try:

    I am trying to park my list of books somewhere soon, but if you type in text my search box, it will give you search from my book list.. please scroll all the way down until you find the book review post. :) sorry abt that, will get it fixed.

    I have reviewed all 3 of Greene's books, and he is my favourite author.

  8. Jovenes: I found you, left a comment and am amazed at how closely we think. How nice!

  9. I really want to read this one. I almost bought it when I was travelling in Vietnam but I didnt and to this day it has been one of my big regrets (yes, I know I am very lucky if that is one of my big regrets). I will add this to my wishlist with a link to my review to remind myself to read it soon

  10. It's really a great book. I'm really happy I chose it.


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