It’s hard to believe but when I first read The Quiet American (about 12 years ago) I completely missed the point!  So much water has flowed under the political bridge since then that it would nigh on impossible to do that now.

(Pyle) was absorbed already in the Dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined … to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve.

Pyle is the eponymous quiet american; young, naive and a firm believer in the political ideology of York Harding who advocated the establishment of a third force as a stabilising alternative to Communism and colonialism.  Arriving in Vietnam as an undercover CIA agent, it is his mission to establish that Third Force.  He is absolutely sincere;  his motivations entirely honourable.

We know nothing of this as the novel commences. We know only that Pyle is dead and that a police investigation is underway. The narrator,  Fowler, is a seasoned British war correspondent, proud of the detachment that is essential to his profession.  As such he is also the observer of the foul acts being performed in the name of democracy and our conduit into the mind of Pyle.

The question is can we wholely believe in Pyle’s innocence and Fowler’s detachment?  Particularly as the two men are engaged in a personal battle over the territory that is Phuong – a Vietnamese prostitute who is living with Fowler at the beginning of the novel, catering for his every whim and fancy.  Pyle (utterly incapable of seeing her for what she is) falls in love with her at first sight and can only see their future in terms of the American dream.    Before making his move, however, he declares his intentions to Fowler.  In his perverse logic, it is the honourable thing to do.

Everything seems different now that you know …. I shall ask her to marry me ….. She’ll just have to choose between us … That’s fair enough.

This is just so Pyle.   Everything is so straightforward.  I came, I saw, I took possession of.  It’s my right after all, I only want what is best for the lady nation.   It stretches our belief that Fowler, in a time when the Anglo-American relationship was not essential, doesn’t simply punch his lights out. In a metaphorical sense, however, it resonates.  Like the British Empire ceding to the new American superpower, he  accepts that Pyle has the better prospects.  He hopes that the past he has had with Phuong will exert a greater pull than the future she could have with Pyle.

Events, however, are set to question the philosophies of both men.  Pyle is to discover that good intentions can,  in fact,  be very harmful.  Politics is a moral quagmire, and Greene, a one time MI6 agent, is well qualified to show it.  The quiet american  is operating in a world where idealism and good intentions are no guarantor of innocence.   Collateral damage, a phrase designed to assuage the conscience, does not remove the stain of guilt and spawns undesirable consequences.  Fowler’s legendary detachment is shaken from its very foundations and he is finally impelled to act.   That too has repercussions.  The novel ends with his regrets and apologies, though are these sufficient to redeem him?

Published in 1955, The Quiet American, is such a relevant read today.  It raises questions about the interventionalist policy of the West and answers them coldly and harshly.  What’s changed since then? was the question most asked at my book group which took place a week after the assassination of Bin Laden.  Pitifully little was our sobering conclusion.  Politics remains as filthy a business as ever.

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