Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Phat Diem cathedral
[photo mine, March 2015]
I reached for The Quiet American after visiting the Phat Diem Cathedral in Vietnam's Ninh Binh province last March.  Besides being an enigmatic place in its own right, the church figures heavily in the novel.  Published in 1956, the story is set at the time the French army was battling the Vietminh guerrillas.

The narrator is one of Greene's classic types -- a long-term British correspondent in Saigon, possessively attached to Phuong, his Vietnamese lover who prepares his opium for him. Fowler is weary, bitter, jaded and dour. One day he meets Alden Pyle, who appears to be his precise opposite -- a young, earnest and open American. From the moment we meet him, Pyle seems to personify his country's naive idealism, and Fowler has been around long enough to recognise it and to foresee what will come of it.
"How did you meet him first?" Vigot asked me. Why should I explain to him that it was Pyle who had met me? I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart.
As I read this book in 2015, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to what drew the United States to invade Iraq. That equally disastrous move was perhaps less idealistic and innocent, but it was surely as ill-informed.
Why does one want to tease the innocent? Perhaps only ten days ago he had been walking back across the Common in Boston, his arms full of the books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China. He didn't even hear what I said: he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West: he was determined -- I learnt that very soon -- 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.
Fairly early in the novel, Greene makes clear that Pyle has been killed, and the French and American authorities are hectoring Fowler for information. He lets them have it.
"Have you any hunch," he asked, "why they killed him? and who?"
Suddenly I was angry; I was tired of the whole pack of them with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their wide cars and their not quite latest guns. I said, "Yes. They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said, 'Go ahead. Win the East for democracy.' He never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lectures made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body he couldn't even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy."
"I thought you were his friend," he said in a tone of reproach.
At one point, both Fowler and Pyle go north, to the conflict zone near Ninh Binh, where they're nearly killed.  (Graham Greene himself sought sanctuary from the fighting in the cathedral, which is a jolting mix of western church and Vietnamese temple architecture.)
All that was left of the Bishop's army brass band led the procession, and the French officers, pious by order of the colonel, followed like choirboys through the gateway into the Cathedral precincts, past the white statue of the Sacred Heart that stood on an island in the little lake before the Cathedral, under the bell tower with spreading oriental wings and into the carved wooden cathedral with its gigantic pillars formed out of single trees and the scarlet lacquer work of the altar, more Buddhist than Christian. From all the villages between the canals, from that Low Country landscape where young green rice-shoots and golden harvests take the place of tulips and churches of windmills, the people poured in.

While they are hiding out from the Vietminh, Pyle shares some of his history with Fowler, much, in fact, like a dog who's desperate to please. I think this is one of Greene's most brilliant moments, capturing the very nature of both men without damning or ridiculing either of them.
"The first dog I ever had was called Prince. I called him after the Black Prince. You know, the fellow who.. ."
"Massacred all the women and children in Limoges."
"I don't remember that."
"The history books gloss it over." I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth, when reality didn't match the romantic ideas he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set...
Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, 'What's the good? he'll always he innocent, you can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.'
In 1995, Robert Strange McNamara (and yes, that was really his middle name), who was Secretary of Defense at the time the United States entered the Vietnam War, published a memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. I remember when the book came out, middle-aged anti-war protesters were sad but gratified to see that the book bore a heavy tone of regret. The Quiet American made me want to read McNamara's book. I wonder whether he ever read Greene's novel (probably), and if so, what he made of young, dead Alden Pyle.

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