Friday, February 5, 2010

The Reading List: The Quiet American

The Quiet American
Graham Greene

Last Summer, I read Graham Greene's The End of the Affair and had this to say about it:
The novel is told in a highly fractured narrative than weaves freely backward and forward through time, mixing straight first-person retelling of events, the narrator’s ruminations, and textual material read by the narrator.... The effect is fairly engrossing and entirely natural; it is much like hearing a friend tell a long and complex story in the typically shuffled way that stories are told.

Did I like the novel? Well, I admire its craftsmanship and am sympathetic to its attempt to plumb the nature of faith. It is also a fascinating look at the texture of life in London during the 1940s. The characters, unfortunately, are all in their separate ways rather shallow and unlikable. This made it hard for me to get too concerned about the state of their souls, which in turn rendered the book rather academic.
In reading The Quiet American, I find not surprisingly that Graham Greene seems to have been a fairly consistent writer. Here again, what I admire most about the book is its craftsmanship, the way that we are guided gently forward and backward in time almost without noticing. In the opening scene, we learn about the death of the title character -- the only quiet American being, in Graham's snooty inuendo, a dead one -- and we might reasonably expect that the story will deal with the repercussions of or investigation into his demise. But no, we spend most of the book at earlier points in time, gradually learning of the political and personal complexities that led to his unhappy end. All of this technical business is handled with enormous mastery.

Too, Greene captures a time and place -- this time, the dying years of French Indochina -- with a great deal of colorful verisimilitude. The Quiet American is not overtly a book about religion, though; it is a book about politics. In particular, it is more or less about the covert imperialism of the United States at mid-century. Greene is agin' it, which is fair enough but also a bit rich for a citizen of the United Kingdom in 1955.

To give Greene his due, however, he makes the old-fashioned imperialism of the European powers nearly as unflattering as the optimistic, technocratic meddling of the Americans. The soon-to-be-quieted American, Pyle, is a hopeful, idealistic, naive Boy Scout, earnestly trying to make Vietnam a better place. It is beyond his imagination that it is real people who are being killed and maimed for the sake of his good intentions. Yet the figure representing Europe is the dissolute narrator, Fowler, a British newspaper correspondent who burns through the tail end of his prime smoking opium, stringing along a Vietnamese mistress, slouching through Saigon living high on his hard currency, and letting his East Indian subordinate, a character he can barely bring himself even to focus on, do all of the work. So although American-style imperialism is pretty awful, as the Vietnamese would continue to discover over the next two decades, European-style imperialism is not so glamorous either.

There is what you might very inclusively call a "love story" at the heart of The Quiet American. Pyle falls in love at first sight with Fowler's mistress, and the two men launch the most passive-aggressive campaign for a woman's hand in all of literature. The mistress herself barely cares which of the two she ends up with, caring only for safety and security in her radically unstable world. Is she, perhaps, representative of all Vietnam, unable to make it on her own, forced to choose between the stifling protection of Europe or of the United States? Is she an unattainable prize, that the world powers can only superficially possess, but never really know? Is she evidence of a mild misogynist streak on Greene's behalf? Or merely a prop on which to hang the plot? All of the above, I think. If The Quiet American has a flaw, it is that this very central character is such an undeveloped shadow. Or, perhaps to fully include her in the story would be to write a different book. I dunno. It's safe to say that Graham Greene knew more about literary craftsmanship than I do.

As in The End of the Affair, you would not care to spend much time with any of the primary characters of The Quiet American. In this book, however, the lack of anyone likeable in the cast didn't much bother me. Where the characters in Affair dedicated most of their time to stoking the tempest in their personal teapot, Pyle and Fowler are at least engaging with the world outside of their personal bubble. They are deeply flawed people, but they are flawed in the ways that we are all flawed. Everyone (present company excluded, of course) occasionally makes the world worse through their naive good intentions, and occasionally through their knowing cynicism. We are Pyles and Fowlers all.

The Reading List Marches On!

Last weekend, I asked Blog Dork Eversaved and Vice-Dork Jenners to nominate the next few books for me to read off of The Reading List. So here, with their kind cooperation, is the road map for, well, probably the rest of the year:
1) Rowling, Harry Potter Book Three (this one was actually my own choice)

2) Lahiri,
Interpreter of Maladies

3) Chomsky,
Manufacturing Consent

4) Voltaire,

5) Diamond,
Guns, Germs, and Steel

6) Blume,
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
Then, we're going to get down to some serious business and read the Iliad, the Odyssey, and James Joyce's Ulysses. The theme song for this stretch of the list will be the Mountain Goats' "This Year." As in: "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me."



Christine M. said...

Oooo, I love Candide! I hope you enjoy it.

The Calico Cat said...

I am so glad to hear that you are going to be reading, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

d said...

a few years ago i tried 'you can't go home again' and struggled. since then i can't think of greene without wanting to vomit.

i can't wait for #6.

Rebel said...

Oh wow... or uh oh. You'll be reading three books I really enjoyed when I read them - Prisoner of Azkaban (although I liked it a lot better on the second reading), Guns Germs & Steel (was kind of mind blowing for me in the same way as The Moral Animal) and Are you there God it's me Margaret...which probably couldn't be *less* geared towards your demographic.

Should be interesting.

RE: The Quiet American - I really considered picking this up while I was in Vietnam... but if the characters are not likable, I probably won't like it.

margaret said...

Are you there Michael? It's me, Margaret, and aren't you about 30 years too late reading that book? I can't wait to read your review.