Book Review: The Quiet American

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

This is the book where Graham Greene makes his anti-American feeling all too obvious, alas, to be comfortable to those who are genuinely patriotic.  This book is the sort of book that is most easily appreciated by those who wish to bash Americans and American culture, the sort that protest the election of President Trump or that view Americans a gauche people without any sort of intellectual or moral depth.  To be sure, there is a great deal of skill in the writing of this book, but it is not a very enjoyable book to read in some of its aspects because the snobbery of the main character, a British journalist Thomas Fowler, who along with the eponymous Quiet American Alden Pyle form two thirds of a love triangle with the lovely Vietnamese beauty Phuong.  It is easy enough to appreciate the skill with which this novel is written but it is impossible to credit the spleen that went into the writing that led Graham Greene to show himself to be the worst sort of snob and quite more fond of the wrong side of the Cold War because he preferred its elitism to the egalitarian nature of the United States as its taking over the British empire’s role as the forces in defense of civilization.

The plot of the novel, which is about 200 pages long, is certainly an intriguing one as far as its structure is concerned.  The novel begins in media res, even towards the end, with the notice of the death of Alden Pyle.  Quite a few times throughout the novel the author comments on Alden Pyle being a quiet American, but sadly the only quiet American, in the author’s estimation, is a dead American, and one gathers that the author wishes this to be the case for a large proportion of the population in general.  In this novel we see Pyle’s somewhat naive good nature as he travels into harm’s way to win the approval of Fowler for his pursuit of Phuong and shows himself to have his knowledge of Vietnam based on a few books he has read and not much good sense of his own.  The rest of the plot shows itself gradually as Pyle tries to encourage a third force between the French and the Communists, and as the author demonstrates the baffling complexity of Vietnamese politics and religion, showing the quagmire that the United States would soon enter into after the defeat of the French at Dienbenphu.

There are a few things to appreciate here as worthwhile.  The author’s command of a complicated plot structure and Fowler’s own lies concerning his witnessing of Pyle on the evening of his death is intriguing, and the fact that Pyle is willing to call Fowler by his Christian name but Fowler is not willing to reply demonstrates the bad breeding and ill nature of Fowler, and his general lack of a gentlemanly attitude towards the American.  Even if the novel, therefore, is highly biased and even if Fowler is not a sympathetic character, not least to a reading audience that is patriotically American, there are worthwhile insights to be gained about foreign affairs from this novel, most notably that it is best to learn about foreign countries and cultures from understanding them and becoming familiar with them first hand rather than to become acquainted with them through books alone that have their own theses and their ulterior motives.  Of course, this particular book has more than its own few ulterior motives, and so the wise reader will get what he or she can from this book while understanding the pique and jealousy concerning America’s rise to prominence that fills such a great part of this novel and its framing.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Book Review: The Quiet American

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