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Graham Greene and ‘The Quiet American’

When I first made a TV film about Vietnam, in 1969, the director asked me to quote from Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American; I did, and later one of the TV critics wrote that I saw the country with a second-hand imagination. Certainly I had read the book when it first came out in 1955, and on reading it once more in Saigon in 1990, perhaps for the sixth or seventh time, I found I admired it more than ever. Just for that reason I ask myself whether the TV critic had not been right, and I see Vietnam through Greene-tinted spectacles.

The question is hard to answer, since the principal character in the book is an English reporter, Thomas Fowler, whose working life in the 1950s is much like mine was to be in the following two decades. He is entranced by the country and to some extent by its people. He takes neither side in the war and detests ideology. He watches with fascination the different ways that France and the United States confront the advance of communism. And although Greene was writing about the early Fifties, when France alone was fighting the war, The Quiet American came to be seen as a prophecy of the US involvement. Indeed by the time of his death this month at the age of eighty-six, Greene had become a kind of Grand Old Man of the left, and The Quiet American stood as his anti-imperialist masterpiece.

The character of the title, Alden Pyle, is said to be based on the CIA agent Colonel Edward Lansdale, who wanted to save democracy with the “psychological warfare” methods that he had studied during his peacetime career as an advertising executive. He had helped to subdue a revolt in the Philippines, afterward going to South Vietnam to assist the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. Two American authors, William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, glorified Lansdale in another Fifties novel, The Ugly American, where he appears as Colonel Edwin Hillandale, who wins hearts and minds by playing the mouth organ.

The Quiet American, Alden Pyle, arrives in Vietnam full of the theories of an absurd pundit, York Harding, author of The Advance of Red China. The Englishman Fowler teases Pyle and derides his hope of building a third force between communism and French colonialism. Then Pyle falls in love with Fowler’s girl, Phuong, and wins her away with the promise of marriage and life in the United States. Fowler is told by the Communists that Pyle is a secret agent engaged in importing plastic for bombs to use in a terror campaign on behalf of a “third force” general, which culminates in a vast explosion in front of the Continental Hotel. The incident is based on an actual bombing outrage which killed dozens of people. Fowler agrees to set up Pyle to be killed by the Communists. The French policeman, Inspector Vigot, thinks but cannot prove that Fowler ordered the killing from sexual jealousy.

The plot of The Quiet American could have unfolded in any country in Asia or Latin America, where the United States was fighting the spread of communism. However, in this as in so many other of Greene’s best books, the place figures as large as the people. When I see or hear the name of the book, I think at once not of Fowler or Pyle or even Phuong, but of Saigon, this garish, wicked, but ever-enchanting city, which Greene had obviously come to love during the four or five winters he spent here.

Saigon has remained unspoiled by war and the still greater menace of property redevelopment, so that not only the atmosphere but the very buildings remain as Greene described them forty years ago. Much of the action occurs along the street that the French called Catinat, the South Vietnamese called Tu Do, the Communists called Dong Khoi, and the Saigonese now call by the second or even the first of these titles. In the dedication of the novel to two of his Saigon friends, Greene says he has “quite shamelessly borrowed the location of your flat to house one of my characters.” Fowler’s flat is still there and, by appearances, occupied.

Fowler first introduces Pyle to Phuong at the Continental Hotel, one evening “in the momentary cool…when the sun had just gone down, and the candles were lit on the stalls in the side streets.” The Continental’s terrace cafe, where I last had a drink in 1980, is now glassed over as part of the flashy refurbishment which has made the hotel both more expensive and dull. The cigarette girls and shoeshine boys who used to pester one on the open terrace have taken their trade to Givral’s café across the street. This is the milk bar or ice cream parlor where every morning Phuong went for a chocolate shake. On the day of the bomb explosion, Pyle had warned her to stay away, thus confirming Fowler’s suspicion about his involvement. The Givral still offers good ice cream and patisseries, an appropriate fare in the city of Ho Chi Minh, who once was assistant pastry cook in the Carlton Hotel in London.

Fowler, the disillusioned journalist, does not believe in God, but Greene, we assume, attended the red brick cathedral which stands at the top of Rue Catinat. He knew the Majestic Hotel, which stands at the bottom. It was here that Fowler was first able to talk to Phuong away from the scrutiny of her older sister. On the night that Pyle is murdered, while on his way to a restaurant by the Dakao Bridge, Fowler provides an alibi at the Majestic bar, and stays to watch the unloading of US planes from a ship in the Saigon River.

Perhaps that restaurant by the Dakao Bridge was the one still popular in the 1960s, when the manageress was a tough Alsatian lady, and some of the clientele were Senegalese who had earlier settled this quarter as soldiers for France. I went there once with an English journalist, almost a caricature of Fowler, who aired his outrageous views in a braying, upper-class accent. As we entered the crowded restaurant, the journalist said to the manageress in his awful French: “Pouvez-vous nous mettre à une table très loin des Américains, surtout des nègres?” Fortunately, he was not overheard or understood.

Unlike almost every other foreigner who has written about Vietnam, Greene actually loved the country and its people, or to be more precise, its women. As Fowler lies beside Phuong, he thinks that “If I smelt her skin it would have the faintest fragrance of opium, and her colour was that of the small flame. I had seen the flowers on her dress beside the canals in the north; she was indigenous, and I never wanted to go home.”

Because so many of Greene’s novels are set in tropical, nasty places—the Congo, Sierra Leone, Haiti, and southern Mexico—some people imagine that Vietnam, too, was part of his hellish geography. On the contrary, it was a place of sensuous beauty and peopled by French and Vietnamese, two races Greene admired.

The Quiet American can be read as a very affecting story of love and murder in an exotic setting, with echoes of Conrad’s Victory, except that the hero, Fowler, fights for and wins his woman. It is at the same time a very political book, though not of course an ideological tract.

It is Pyle, not Fowler, whose head is bursting with liberal-leftist passion. In fact Fowler, like Greene at the time, was inclined to side with the French. Taxed by Pyle with his indulgence toward the colonialists, Fowler replies:

Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer—all right, I’m against him. He hasn’t been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he’d beat his wife.”

Fowler goes on to describe a French priest, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, who works fifteen hours a day in a cholera epidemic, saying his Mass with a wooden platter. Would Pyle call that priest part of colonialism? Pyle quotes his mentor, York Harding, to the effect that good individuals make it hard to get rid of a bad system. To this Fowler replies with a memorable outburst, which may be the key to much of Greene’s thinking on politics:

Anyway the French are dying every day—that’s not a mental concept. They aren’t leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians—and ours. I’ve been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven’t a liberal party any more—liberalism’s infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience. I’d rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it.”

From Greene’s newspaper reports on Vietnam in the recent collection of reports and reviews, Reflections,1 it is clear that his own views were more pro-French and anti-Communist than those he attributes to Fowler. Writing for Paris Match in 1952, he is passionate on the need to stop the Viet Minh:

In the beginning the war may very well have been a colonial war (even if the Viet Minh fired the first shots), but the young men who, with stubborn and ferocious determination, are doing the actual fighting in a hard climate against a savage and fanatical enemy, care little for the rubber plantations of Cochin China and Cambodia. They are fighting because France itself is at war and firmly determined not to let its allies down as long as humanly possible.

In The Quiet American, Fowler makes fun of Pyle for advancing the Domino Theory that if Vietnam falls, so will the rest of Southeast Asia. He advanced the theory himself in 1952.

Today at Lang Son, Ho Chi Minh rules over nothing but ruins, and 160,000 men of the French army (including Moroccans, Senegalese and Legionaires) plus a Vietnamese army of 200,000 stand between him and the Hanoi-Haiphong delta, the essential bastion in the defense of Siam and Malaya.

Nearly two years later, early in 1954, Greene went into Dien Bien Phu which was just about to fall to the Communists. In a bitter article for the London Sunday Times, Greene blamed the debacle on the United States, which had failed to help the French in 1945 and indeed had tried to prevent them getting back their Indo-China colonies.

A visit to Mexico in 1938 had given Greene his lifelong distaste for American liberalism. It was the liberal American President Woodrow Wilson who said, on invading Mexico, that it was “our duty to teach these people to elect good governments.” It was liberal Americans like Pyle who did so much damage in Vietnam. They got into the war, like Pyle, to build a third force between the Communists and colonialists. They got out of the war because the deaths and wounds offended their sensitive conscience, leaving the South Vietnamese to massacre or re-education camps. Pyle, planting his bomb in front of the Continental Hotel, was a forerunner of those who rained millions of bombs on North Vietnam, still with the best intentions.

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    Reinhardt Books/Viking, 1990.

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