The 1950s, saw the decline of British and French colonialism in Vietnam, as American involvement grew. Some critics have credited Greene’s novel with “predicting” the outcome of American military action in Vietnam, or at least, exposing the flaws in the thinking of the novel’s American character, Pyle (and therefore undermining the philosophy which lies behind Pyle’s character – American exceptionalism) who is darkly counter-balanced by the cynicism of Fowler, the British protagonist.
Fowler is an older man who appears to have forsaken a lot of his earlier ideals for a comfortable colonial style life with a young Vietnamese women, Phuong (who soon draws the attention of Pyle, “The Quiet American”). Frequently, these three characters are read as representations of Britain (Fowler), America (Pyle) and Vietnam (Phuong). There might even be a twisted parallel between the characters of Phuong and Ma Hla May from Orwell’s Burmese Days. One woman is idealised, the other, discarded, but both are acquired and used by foreign men in an almost universal fashion.
The book seems to pivot on moving the reader’s sympathies between characters; who is really “to blame” here? Is it worse to act with good intentions, and bring about destruction, or to barely try at all, and let things take their own, brutal course? Is it better to live life simply, striving to attain basic survival and material possessions, or to blindly pursue philosophical (but somewhat fantastical) political ambitions? Perhaps there is also something of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall in Greene’s own commentary on the twilight of the British Empire, as the sun was setting yet the era not past, not yet a bygone time.
Greene’s writing is characteristically dark and focuses on the inevitable incorruptibility of human nature (think of his earlier work, Brighton Rock). Inescapable fallibility was a subject of fascination for Greene, who was baptised as a Catholic at the age of 22 and grappled with faith his entire life, including the fact that by his own admission he came to refer to himself as a “Catholic atheist”. Certainly, a lifelong friend commented that Greene’s writing routine (of strictly writing around 500 words a day in a single notebook, and then stopping) was a “kind of penance“.
Zadie Smith wrote of Greene that “He knew one country could fall for another, get involved with it, grow tired of it and break its heart” (Source; Introduction to the 2004 edition).
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite quotes (from the 2004 Edition);
“My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action”.
- Fowler, pg. 20
“He wasn’t an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation”.
- Fowler, pg. 87
PS, my favourite scene is the one where Fowler is translating from Pyle speaking to Phuong, it’s absurd and incredible and says so much, without any direct dialogue between those two characters. If you’ve read it, you’ll know which part I mean!