So – my first review for the year. It’s been a while. I feel a little like a boxer stepping back into the ring after a long absence.
(Albeit a rather timid boxer with messy hair and big glasses and a book tucked beneath one arm…)
Anyway. The longer I leave this review, the more nervous I’ll get. It’s time.
Cue review-writing montage…
The Quiet American
by Graham Greene
Published in 1955
It’s not that I didn’t like what I was reading. Far from it – I read The Quiet American with a feverish hunger. But, as a wannabe writer, reading The Quiet American left me feeling somewhat exasperated.
Greene writes about complex themes with a clarity that’s utterly baffling. He creates characters that feel so real; they seem larger than this novel’s mere 180 pages could possibly allow. Greene’s dialogue is amongst the best I’ve ever read, and the structure of his novel is just…brilliant.
And that’s the thing that bugs me about Graham Greene – he makes the art of writing seem so effortless. When I know firsthand that it’s not. For me, at least.
The Quiet American is actually quite a complicated book, but, like the magician he is, Greene distracts the reader’s attention with a story so arresting, it’s easy not to notice the little elements that make this novel work.
Thomas Fowler is a jaded, middle-aged British journalist, who has been living in Vietnam for some time. Cynical and worn-out, Fowler has developed a fondness for opium – and for Phuong, a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman who shares his home and bed, even though Fowler has a wife and children back in England.
When Pyle, the American of the novel’s title, arrives in Vietnam filled to the brim with youthful enthusiasm and high-minded ideas about a “Third Force” in Vietnam, Fowler is at first amused by Pyle.
However, when Pyle announces with characteristically naïve arrogance that he has fallen in love with Phuong, Fowler slowly realises that Pyle is not a joke.
As he discovers that Pyle’s involvement in Indochina might be more insidious than he first assumed, Fowler feels he must take action and stop Pyle…but is he doing what is right for Vietnam, or for himself?
The Quiet American is a haunting novel, filled with ghostly echoes. Greene’s characters play out in miniature the politics of the countries they represent. Yet The Quiet American is no mere allegory – it’s a deeply human novel, replete with fear, jealousy and lust. It was the characters of The Quiet American and the complicated relationship that arises between them that drew me in – not the politics. To read this novel from a purely political perspective would be a crime.
The way Greene manages to squash such perfectly-sculpted characters into the confines of only 180 pages is nothing short of breathtaking. Against all odds Greene manages to creates sympathy for Fowler, his prickly anti-hero, who has abandoned his wife and children for an uncertain future in a war-torn country. Fowler is middle-aged and weak, overwhelmed with world-weary self-loathing. The Vietnamese pronounce his name “Fowlair”, as if he’s stagnant; a bad smell that’s lingered too long.
In contrast, Pyle is young and wealthy, full of life and naive optimism. But it’s with Fowler – despicable, odious Fowler – that I found myself siding. He has a certain endearing vulnerability about him.
The Quiet American is such an overwhelmingly masculine novel, but at the very centre of all this strutting, posturing masculinity lies a woman. Phuong (“which means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes” Greene tells us on page one) is portrayed as a kind of cryptic blank. Although she does Fowler’s bidding, he is unable to access her innermost feelings. She acts as her own self-interest dictates, looking for a foreign husband to protect her from life on the streets. It’s not that Greene neglects her character in any way. He purposefully leaves Phuong as inscrutable, unknowable.
The Quiet American has the consistency of a dream. Or, perhaps more accurately, a nightmare.
Greene creates the novel’s atmosphere by narrating the novel from Fowler’s first-person perspective. Fowler’s world-weariness lends the novel an intense sadness, and his journalistic tone achieves a sense of detachment from the novel’s action. Fowler’s detachment is not only an essential part of how The Quiet American is narrated – it also becomes a theme of the novel.
But what impressed me most about The Quiet American is the novel’s underlying structure. Greene begins his novel towards the ending, and Fowler relates his story in a series of flashbacks, returning to the present at times for just a paragraph before dipping back into the past. Then flashing back to his old life in England. There are even hints of a future; fleeting insights into Fowler’s life after the events of the novel have run their course.
The structure of The Quiet American is remarkably complicated. But Greene makes it work. That’s just the kind of writer he is – a true professional. A gentleman; a genius. Once again, I shake my head in sheer awe.
Normally, when I write my reviews, I ensure the novel I’m writing about is fresh in my mind. I finish reading one book, then I write my review before proceeding to the next. As a reviewer, that’s how I work.
But this time is different. I’m writing this review quite a while after reading The Quiet American. And, admittedly, I’ve read three novels since.
While I might have forgotten the quotations I intended to include with this review, the exact turns of phrase, I still remember the novel’s nightmarish atmosphere as if I’d finished reading it an hour ago.
The Quiet American will stay with you. Just try shaking it off. This solemn little novel will become fused to you – whether you like it or not.
.Yes – I’m changing my own ratings system. No more “superawesome”. No more “In a word” – they were driving me batty. Let me know what you think.
(Plus, I owe a giant thank you to the always-lovely Stephanie from Read in a Single Sitting for helping me get my star system up and running. I’m useless at this technical stuff.)