The Quiet American  by Graham Greene

Any novel that references Cheddar Gorge in its final page will always make me smile. The Somerset landmark near to where I live couldn’t really be further away from the Franco-Vietnam war of the 1950s. Graham Greene’s carefully constructed eternal triangular drama set in the colonial conflict also became a celebrated prophesy of how the 30 year conflict would pan out.

The cynical but honest protagonist Fowler, the naïve and idealistic Pyle (the titular character) and the enigmatic love interest Phuong completes the love triangle who also represent the complexity of the war. Fowler as the former colonial power who loves and hates as well as exploiting but understanding Vietnam, Pyle who believes he can bring American values and democracy to the country by using justifiable violence and bloodshed, and Phuong who seeks an escape from the conflict siding with whichever side offers security.

Brilliantly constructed, complex in its symbolism and insightful due to Greene’s own experiences as a war reporter the novel uses flashbacks to layer the narrative of the I-dunnit or at least I-collaborated-in-the-who-dunnit to life. There’s so much to enjoy from the French military’s press conference when journalists are told the Vietcong are losing the war despite the facts suggesting they are winning it, the exchange of letters between Fowler and his wife as their relationship heads for a divorce and Pyle’s cringingly respectful disagreements Fowler.

An exceptional novel that helps to not only explain why the Vietnam war was always going to be a lost cause but all colonial wars (usually dressed up as regime change or humanitarian interventions) eventually end in a mess as the residents would prefer to be left alone to rule themselves. Look at those wars of the last few years: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya. If only the various prime ministers, presidents and Government officials had read The Quiet American. It might have saved thousands of lives and a great deal of misery.

Harry Mottram

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There have been two adaptions of the novel for film. One in 2002 and one back in 1958. The image is from the more recent one with Michael CaineBrendan Fraser, and Do Thi Hai Yen.