Again this is a book that I approached with negative preconceptions: the last (and only other) Graham Greene novel that I’d read was the End of the Affair, which I found slightly dull and fairly unstimulating (which was in itself a disappointment). The Quiet American gives a far more engaging impression of Greene’s writing – although I must admit that my very first encounter with the author is from their discussion of him in the film Donnie Darko (which is probably the reason why the End of the Affair was something of a let down).
The Quiet American follows Thomas Fowler, a British reporter stationed in Saigon during the Vietnam war who is confronted with the news, at the start of the novel, that his sort-of friend Pyle is dead; and then recounts Fowler’s and Pyle’s short “friendship” until, and slightly succeeding, the latter’s demise. I say “friendship” in inverted commas because Pyle does not act in a way that you would call especially friendly – despite declaring on more than one occasion that Fowler is his very best friend. Pyle is an odd character (he is the eponymous quiet American) – if anything, he doesn’t seem very American at all. He is very stiff and proper, robotic and ignorant – and I think it was nice to see this in an American character while British Fowler is more emotional and empathic. Pyle, a Harvard graduate, arrives in Vietnam having apparently studied the country (and the “solution” to the war) in a set of novels by the (pompously named) scholar York Harding. His conversations are almost painfully scripted: after just one meeting he decides that he is in love with Fowler’s mistress Phuong, and that is he going to marry her – despite her being with Fowler – an offer that she will undoubtedly accept.
Pyle is bullheadish and single minded in his convictions – not only about Phuong and Vietnam but also (more dangerously perhaps) his own actions. At first his peculiar behaviour is amusing to witness, but as the novel goes on it becomes frustrating, eventually cumulating in the reason behind his death. As I said, this was a good book and I would recommend it – as with Dickens, there are quite a few Graham Greene novels on the list and I don’t think I’ll be quite as reluctant to pick up another (although I’ve already slightly spoilt Brighton Rock by watching the film).