So, ah, have you ever started reading a book you thought was about something completely different than it turned out to be? Because I was under some kind of misapprehension about The Quiet American before I started it. All I really knew about it was that it was made into a movie some time in the early to mid 2000s starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. I only know this because I had a cousin involved in the picture, who at the time called his mother to say, “I’ve just met Michael Caine and you’re the only person I can think of who’ll care.” Because this was back before we all had decided Michael Caine was cool again when he started being Batman’s butler and that sort of thing.
I think I had the book confused with The English Patient and possibly some other book that doesn’t exist. Essentially, I knew the plot involved two men in love* with the same woman, but for some reason I believed it involved either a hospital or POWs. This is what a hazy memory for pop culture does to a person. I recommend you all study hard on what the Kardashians and real housewives are up to right now, for it may be tested later.
Anyway, The Quiet American has absolutely nothing to do with wartime nurses or POWs, but is rather set in the early days of American involvement with the war in Vietnam. The French still battle it out with the various Vietnamese revolutionary factions, and Thomas Fowler, foreign correspondent, observes all with a willfully enforced detachment. Into his life comes Alden Pyle, an American with a vague job description who falls in love with Fowler’s Vietnamese girl, Phuong. Pyle sets out to marry Phuong, negotiating with Fowler, who is hesitant to give her up. While he doesn’t love her, he fears the loneliness of his approaching old age.
The symbolism Greene uses is obvious enough for the attentive reader, but not in a way that feels forced or cliched. Moreover, apart from representing variously the old world colonial attitudes, American interventionism, and Vietnam itself, the characters are all rounded individuals with human foibles and failings. The book allows the reader to find its meaning themselves in that regard. There are also other thematic elements thrown in – cynicism versus naivety; atheism versus religion; age versus youth. Fowler and Pyle are dichotomous characters who compete, but nonetheless develop a fondness for one another which allows them to meaningfully interact and gives the conclusion a deep emotional impact.
Of course the fact of Pyle’s eventual death are disclosed almost from the first line. The mysteries the story holds are emotionally complex and compellingly written. Apparently I’ve irritated people in the past for disliking a modern classic. So allow me to remedy that by expressing my enjoyment in this book. If you didn’t have to study it in high school, please do read this book. It will only become more profound a commentary with time.
*It’s rather more complicated than that.