The Quiet American by Graham Greene

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.

14 thoughts on “The Quiet American by Graham Greene

  1. Interesting perspective on the story. I was decidedly against the Vietnam war and remain, to this day, convinced of its folly. However…

    As you might imagine, this struck a chord with me. The irony of an ex-pat Brit (Fowler in this case) chastising Yankee imperialism was doubly grating – remembering both a time when American “meddling” was actually welcomed by the British (and clearly needed) and a time when the sun never set on the British Empire.

    But Fowler personified the ennui of the disaffected, drug-addled expat of the day.

    I saw the movie version, with Michael Caine (nobody does ex-pat ennui better)and Brendan Frasier, before I read the book. But I finally came to read the book while in Vietnam on holiday in 2004.

    We stayed at the Continental while in Saigon (made a point to have drinks at the Elephant Bar as well), and everywhere we went for the entire 2 weeks that we were there we were beseiged by little boys selling postcards and paperback copies of The Quiet American. I finally succumbed, on the last day of our journey – figuring that it would be a good read for the long flight home.

    The book was a clumsily photocopied and bound rip off, been cello wrapped when I got it. It came as a shock to find that it ended – quite abruptly — about 39 pages from the actual conclusion! They just hadn’t quite finished the job.

    There’s irony there, as well.

    • Pearl,
      I’m just glad that it’s one war which our then prime minister managed to keep us out of. But as my grandad said – never trust a British government – he learned that one in the World War I trenches.
      I think that as Britain gave India up they decided to take the view that no other country should be imperialist either.
      I don’t know if you read Gore Vidal, I really like him, he said somewhere that when he mentions American imperialism he gets hate mail from the US as they don’t believe that there is such a thing. If you get a chance have a look at the letter in today’s Guardian (Tuesday)- US Occupations – you might find it interesting.
      Mind you the American bases in Britain were always very popular with the local populations, I suppose they were good for the economies. In a previous life I used to collate the communicable disease statistics for the south of England and that sleepy rural county of Suffolk always topped the VD ‘chart’ – the air base was very popular! I hope you got to read the last 39 pages eventually. I’m not crazy on Michael Caine so I haven’t seen the film.

      • I read the bit you mentioned – looks like the author has a very broad definition of “occupation.”

        America is such a lovely big target to bash. A giant pinata for the world.

        But I think the STD reference was uncalled for.

        • Island Pearl,
          “Occupation” is when you put your troops on another country’s land, uninvited by the authorities. I’ll never forget the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 – a member of the British Commonwealth, the Queen is head of state – some years back by American forces. They didn’t bother to inform the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that they were going to be invading, apparently to ‘save’ some American medical students, who were very upset by the whole thing because they were in no need of being saved from anything.

          The STD reference is just a fact of life. I don’t do smiley faces but it was meant to be an amusing fact, not intended to be nasty. Sorry if it upset your sensibilities.

          • My dad was part of the D-Day force that went in at Normandy. My husband is retired USAF. So yes, while normally quite thick-skinned, I’m offended at the insinuation. But it’s your blog. You’re entitled to your opinion.

          • Pearl,
            I come from a large family and all of the men were in the forces – army, navy, RAF and merchant navy (Atlantic convoys) my father was disabled but he managed to get into the merchant navy, determined to do his bit – it took up 6 years of their young lives. In fact an uncle in the RAF didn’t get de-mobbed until 1948 because he was sent to what was then Palestine. My father-in-law was a Dunkirk survivor and we also had a Japanese POW survivor in the family. The women were mainly in munitions factories. Opinion is what they were fighting for, amongst other things.

  2. I have never read the book and it is not on my list, but I must say I found the 2002 film starring Michael Caine to be profoundly provocative–made me think and think again, very deeply. It also made me vow to view the film again. Not Graham Greene’s work, of course, but incisive all the same.

    • Judith,
      The book was on my list because I inherited it years ago and I thought it was about time I got around to reading it, not having seen the film. I’ll have a look next time it’s on to see if it differs from the book.

  3. I’ve neither seen the film nor read the book. After reading your post and the comments, and the New York Times review I think I must read The Quiet American. I’ve read England Made Me (when I did an OU course), although I can’t remember much about it now and a few years ago I read The End of the Affair, which I thought was excellent. Neither of those are as controversial as The Quiet American, which may not be my cup of tea either, but I like books that make me think and it seems this one will at least do that.

    • Margaret,
      I haven’t read an awful lot by Graham Greene and this one was completely different from what I have read. It’s quite a quick read anyway. Your opinion might be completely different from mine, but hey-ho, it’s the spice of life and all that! I wish I had read The End of the Affair before seeing the film but I’ll get around to it eventually.

  4. I must add this book to my wishlist. Thank you!

    I saw you were listed in the literary blog directory, and I thought I’d share with you a blog hop I find fun, the Literary Blog Hop. This week’s prompt is to tell about your favorite literary device. Here’s my attempt to pick my favorite literary device.

    Also, I’d like to invite you to throw your name into the hat for a $25 Amazon gift certificate in Readerbuzz’s July Giveaway! It’s international!

    • Deb Nance,

      Thanks for visiting ‘pining’. I’m not sure if you’ll enjoy The Quiet American when you get around to it. It seems to be quite controversial even 50 odd years on!

      Thanks for the info. I’ll drop by.

      Regards, Katrina

  5. It’s easier for people of one country to criticize the imperialism or oppression of another country. The Americans, the British, the French and others all engage in this hypocritical behavior.

    • Rosie Powell,
      You’re right, and ‘superpower’ is just another word for ’empire’ as far as I’m concerned.
      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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