For a self-imposed challenge I’ve decided not to buy any more books this year. Instead I’ll be trawling through my dusty bookshelves to read the countless unread books that I already own. First up is Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American. Set in Vietnam, it follows the uneasy relationship between Thomas Fowler, an ageing and boozy English reporter, and Alden Pyle, a young and idealistic American. The unease between them is provided by Phuong, the lover of Fowler, who the younger man falls for. The book begins with the death of Pyle, and Fowler remembers the preceding months in flashback. How Pyle makes a bid for Phuong, how Fowler deceives them into thinking that his wife in England will divorce him and how Pyle goes on to heroically save the older man’s life. The Quiet American draws to a close with Fowler discovering Pyle’s secret terrorist activities, and deciding if his decision to act on impulse and stop him is a worthy decision or a personal one.
At first I was nervous about reading this novel. Sometimes my history is sketchy, and I wanted to avoid having to revise the history of Vietnam in order to enjoy the book. This isn’t really necessary and The Quiet American has aged very well, with its setting easily reset in any contemporary war zone. Unfortunately any reader will find the background events of conflict and cruelty familiar. This is the enduring, and perhaps ironic, strength of the book. Fowler is also a recognisably flawed hero, and it takes only a small amount of effort to remove any images of the two cinema personifications of him, namely Michael Caine and Michael Redgrave, from the mind. Greene’s writing style always fascinates. It’s a quiet novel; very brief and often understated. It was like listening to a very faint but still compelling voice. I had to concentrate on it and move as close as I could, but the prose was far superior than anything I’ve read in a long time. It’s a masterful work.
If I was forced to make a criticism at all I would probably opt for questioning the portrayal of Phuong, who comes across very much as the unequal side of the love triangle. She’s a too passive character, and we learn little about her other than her quaint confusion between England and America (she asks Fowler if there are skyscrapers in London – remember it’s only 1955) and the novel very much rests on the Fowler vs Pyle fulcrum. There’s some great tension in their encounters. Where the novel also falls down is, oddly, during one of its strongest passages. Stranded after curfew when their car runs out of petrol, the two men seek sanctuary in a lookout tower. Fearing for their lives, they embark on a thorough, lucid and well-reasoned political debate when in reality they’d probably do no more than whisper “shit!” at their dangerous predicament. Greene can create scene and atmosphere perfectly but, like Fowler, he appears numb to the life threatening dangers of the war zone. Such is life.