Graham Greene wrote this book between 1952 and 1955. He was inspired to write it after spending four weeks as a war correspondent in Indo-China for the Sunday Times and Le Figaro.
It’s set in the beginnings of what later became the Vietnam War. Thomas Fowler is an English war correspondent there and although he has an abandoned wife back in England who refuses to give him a divorce, he has been having a relationship with Phuong, a young Annamite (from eastern Indochina). Phuong is obsessed with the British royal family and hopes to be able to go to London some day.
Pyle is a young American and he is besotted with Phuong from the minute he first sees her. I’m not sure if Pyle is supposed to be ‘not quite the full shilling’ – anyway, he is completely upfront about wanting to take Phuong from Fowler and seems to be under the impression that that means he is a decent man.
Phuong’s main job is to prepare Fowler’s opium pipes and to be a compliant easy lay, basically. Fowler is attached to her because she’s of use to him without giving him any emotional problems.
Fowler was sick of Americans before Pyle came on the scene, he saw them as greedy and imperialistic, making sure that they came out top in any business deals and that their allies the French were left out of things.
Fowler realises that Pyle is working undercover and underneath all that wide-eyed decency and innocence is a dangerous man who thinks in black and white – the white being America and the black being anything against America but particularly communism. Pyle is quite happy to unleash bombs in areas which he knows will be full of innocent people, he thinks the cause is good, so their deaths are unimportant.
As you can imagine this book didn’t go down well with the American reviewers at the time but I think that it’s probably an accurate reflection of what Graham Greene experienced.
This is another one from my 2011 Reading List.
The subject matter wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I quite enjoyed it.
If you’ve read the book and you want a laugh, have a look at this review here from The New York Times 1956.