The Beauty and Danger of Innocence: “The Quiet American”

July 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

photo by barjack

The Quiet American draws from renowned author Graham Greene’s rich experiences in French Indochina: four winters spent as a war correspondent for The Times.

Set in 1950’s, The Quiet American is a fictional firsthand account of an aging British reporter, Thomas Fowler. Living a rich life of intrigue and adventure, reporting on the Franco-Vietminh war, the waning grip of the French on its Indochinese territory.  Opium habits, an easy life, and an enigmatic Vietnamese mistress keeps Fowler enchanted by the land he works in. When the Americans arrive, Fowler chances upon a polite and unusually quiet young American aid worker Alden Pyle.  But Pyle isn’t really as quiet as he seems…

I can’t help but think about how Robert Stone starts out his introduction to the novel, that Graham Greene’s title was an irony and a joke-and-punchline rolled into one: the only quiet American, was a dead American. Greene certainly has a sly sense of humor.

Greene’s central protagonist is styled on himself, like the best thriller and spy novelists often do. I’ve found that novelists and writers I favor tend to spend an extraordinary amount of effort into describing detail. In his words, he felt the need to “dive below the polite level to something nearer to common life.” Greene was a true traveller: one that wanted to know how the natives lived and carried out their lives. His writing reflects this.

“The first time Pyle met Phuong was again at the Continental, perhaps two months after his arrival. It was the early evening, in the momentary cool which came when the sun had just gone down, and the candles were lit on the stalls in the side streets. The dice rattled on the tables where the French were playing Quatre Cent Vingt-et-un and the girls in the white silk trousers bicycled home down the rue Catinat.”

What is it with Vietnam that seems to leave its visitors (combatant, non-combatant, tourists) in a limbo? Fowler explains to Pyle that his mistress means everything to him, that “if you take Phuong away from me, it is the beginning of death for me.” and tries his best to convince his bosses to keep him in Saigon.

Like Martin Sheen’s Captain Benjamin in Apocalypse Now, Thomas Fowler is haunted by Vietnam, with the eerie opening lines of the movie “When I was here, I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.”

But it shouldn’t be surprising. Like Apocalypse Now, The Quiet American is also an inquiry into the human condition: what it truly means to be a human being.

If there was ever a novel written describing a twenty-something male wanting to create an impact on the world, traveling to places, hubris, not having a complete grasp on risk and death, falling in love with exotic women, and that innocent drive to associate with new and interesting people: Alden Pyle would be the full characterization of him.

“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” says Fowler of Pyle.

Pyle might have been the bumbling idiot in Greene’s literary criticism on American foreign policy since the 1950’s, and I am sure every twenty-something male would see a facet of Pyle in him, in some way. I do. Of that wanting to make a difference, taking on the world, and the hubris.

Youth and inexperience can be an advantage many ways, harmful in even more if not kept in check.

Through Pyle, Greene reveals what it being “innocent” entails. It means to be loud, pushy, inconsiderate, well intentioned, but at the same time,without a conscience and murderous.

At the same time innocence can be taken to be lacking any “inner life”, the result of non-curious, non-intellectual life.

Pyle seems to lack the ability to have a sense of humor. He never quite properly responds to Fowler’s underhanded remarks and insults at him. But instead attempts at “puppyish friendship” with Fowler. (“You’re the best friend I ever had Thomas.”)

How do these criticisms of American foreign policy hold up today? For the past fifty years, Graham Greene’s words seemed to have been a foretelling, a prophecy. I can’t help find parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, and the stories of human condition that will/have erupted from it.

It serves as a poignant reminder of what happens when one nation meddles in the affairs of another state it doesn’t understand.

Member of the British Parliament Rory Stewart‘s (whose experiences and impressive resume around the world) gives this insight:

“State building is not an engineering problem…  nation building is not a question of technical decisions.

It is in fact an issue of myth, legend, identity, of culture and history, tradition. It is about creating the momentum of founding fathers.

Its about convincing people why they want to belong to a country, why they should be working together.

Its a question of charisma, and political leadership. And these are the things that foreigners certainly do not have the power or knowledge or legitimacy to attain.”
-Rory Stewart, during an Authors@Google talk

photo by chrisblnc
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§ One Response to The Beauty and Danger of Innocence: “The Quiet American”

  • kylegocougs says:

    Great article- you really summarize well. Do you know what Thomas Fowler’s philosophy on life was? I have forgotten

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