‘Brighton Rock ‘ was my first exposure to Graham Greene and it was not pleasant. I found it quite morbid. I chanced upon ‘The Quiet American’ while staying at a friend’s place and picked it up because it was a slim book and I could get through it in a few days.
‘The Quiet American’ is the story of two men in love with one women, set against the background of the Franco-Vietminh war.
Fowler a British Journalist, hardened by war and believes the only way to be sane is not to take sides – just watch and report. He does not aspire ambition or fame, his only fear is being left alone.
The other man is Alden Pyle, a fresh-faced American , young and idealistic , filled with bookish ideas of bringing about a new revolution. He does not see the reality of war and is absorbed with his own agenda. Everything about him is matter-of-fact, and his distance from reality is chilling. His innocence is a danger to himself and others.
The story starts with the discovery of Pyle’s body, dumped in the river, leading to Fowler’s interrogation. We go back to the time they first met and their growing friendship, more situational than voluntary. Fowler does not have any real affection for Pyle and resents him both for stealing his mistress and being involved in underhand terrorist activities.
The dark humor employed at times in the book is reminiscent of ‘Catch 22’. One of the most moving section of the book is when Pyle & Fowler as stranded on a checkpost in the middle of the night with two teenage soldiers of the Vietnam National Army anticipating the Vietminh attack. Like many other books written on wartime, this scene reinforces the wastefulness of war.
Greene creates an engaging and exotic picture of Vietnam. As you read along, you realize the futility of the war, how it’s about basic personal agendas and how civilians are caught in the crossfire. And how getting involved is about getting your hands red.
Verdict: Highly recommended. Buy it.