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The Quiet American (1955)

by Graham Greene

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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7,4001721,042 (3.97)491
This novel is a study of New World hope and innocence set in an Old World of violence. The scene is Saigon in the violent years when the French were desperately trying to hold their footing in the Far East. The principal characters are a skeptical British journalist, his attractive Vietnamese mistress, and an eager young American sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission.… (more)
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English (160)  Dutch (3)  Spanish (2)  German (2)  Italian (1)  Hebrew (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (170)
Showing 1-5 of 160 (next | show all)
The setting, period and publication date for this novel are all fascinating. Greene was interested enough in Vietnam in the early 1950s to write a novel about it, when it was still a French debacle before it became an American one. He was also interested in the American presence that was already making itself felt, the press corps but also the not-so-secret signs of American military support.

The story is fascinating too. Greene did not write long novels but very condensed and full of power. There is a lot to unpack here, about the vagaries and selfishness of love, blind loyalty to ideals at all costs, the turmoil of guilt, and (most interesting to me) the nature of objectivity and how long it can be prolonged under extreme conditions. Fowler thinks he is an aloof observer, as his role demands of him, but the pressures of remaining human are ever growing.

Fowler insults Pyle's love for the historical Black Prince, citing the massacre of Limoges. Research since 1955 suggests the massacre was overstated. Innocence sometimes does win in the end. But the definition of innocence, and its intersection with guilt, can and should be debated. ( )
  Cecrow | Sep 19, 2022 |
This was a good book. I liked the characters and the plot was interesting too. Showed me I don't know as much as I thought about the Vietnam War. ( )
  Ghost_Boy | Aug 25, 2022 |
Let me start by saying: this book lives up to every good thing I've ever read about it, on pretty much every scale I might judge it by. And in less than 200 pages.

Greene's writing is phenomenal. A genius gift for combining observations about the intensely personal and the broadly political. For exploring the chasm between innocence and cynicism. To look into your soul and become comfortable with what you find there.

On innocence:
“Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

On introspection:
“There wasn't any point in being angry with anyone - the offender was too obviously myself...”

On world politics:
“They don't believe in anything either. You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested."
"They don't want communism."
"They want enough rice," I said. "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."

And in the background of all of is the jaw-dropping awareness of how intensely right was Greene's assessment of the situation in Vietnam in the mid-1950's, and how stupidly blind the American government was. The French debacle at Dien Bien Phu (about which Greene also wrote, and from a very close perspective) was actually happening in the same time period as this book. That should have been such an incredibly clear signal to the Americans to stay out of the area, and yet their righteousness prevented them from doing so.

Would that this book had been required reading for all of the American decision makers in the 50's, 60's and 70's. It could have saved the lives of nearly 60,000 Americans - and over 3 million others. And the readers would have enjoyed a stellar literary experience. ( )
  BarbKBooks | Aug 15, 2022 |
The Vietnam War is an era that is all too real for me. If you lived through it, you will probably agree that, as a people, we never understood what we were doing, why we were there, or who we were “saving”. The French had already tried to remake Vietnam into a Western style democracy, and had failed entirely. This book takes place just at the passing of the baton--France has not quite given up, and America is beginning to think they have the solution.

That is the scene, but this book, as with all of Greene’s writings, is about more than its setting, it is about people. Fowler, Pyles and Phuong are representations of the three elements that are trying to mix in Vietnam, and they are as unable to do it as individuals as they were as nations. Neither of these men understands Phuong. I was struck that she was not a real or whole person to either of them and their “love” for her was as selfish as love could ever be. She, on the other hand, appears to accept them as they are, without trying overly much to understand them. I think she would tell you that they are too foreign to understand--and there is the rub, they are the foreigners, she is at home.

During one of their discussions, Fowler tells Pyle of the Vietnamese citizens: "They want enough rice,' I said, 'They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want." Fowler has been at this game long enough to understand that what the outsiders want for Vietnam is not necessarily a reflection of what the Vietnamese themselves wish for. But, while he waivers in his view from moment to moment, even he seems to see the Vietnamese as too simple and childlike to make their own choices.

Pyle is never bothered with this struggle to see them as anything other than children, however. As the romantic imperialist, he is the guy who has all the solutions if these misguided people would just step out of his way and leave him in charge. Of course, he is deluded.

"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."

The essential question raised by Greene might be how much do we count? As individuals? Do some count more than others? Should one decide the fate of many? Can you witness destruction and not become involved?

Near the end of the book, Fowler asks, "How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?"

Sadly, I don’t think we have answered that question yet.
( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Published in the mid-1950's, in the midst of France's colonial war in what was called Indochina (Vietnam), the main character, Fowler, is a cynical and world-weary English journalist covering the war.

The backdrop is the war, the interactions between the French and Vietnamese, with many factions competing for power. The book depicts the early American entry into the Vietnam war, beginning as "intelligence" that morphs into "influence". And through the lens of Fowler, that influence is disastrous. Given the advantage of hindsight from 50 years later, Greene had amazing insight and I'm sure was the least surprised person on the planet when the Vietnam war stopped being a French colonial war and turned into an American war.

The story is told through the love triangle of Fowler (European), Pyle (American) and the young woman Phuong (Vietnamese). Both men claim to love Phuong, while her behavior strongly indicates that she's most interested in which man will make a commitment to her. A somewhat strained allegory for the larger political picture.

Overall an amazing book. I love Greene's ability to predict massive political shifts in his books.
( )
  sriddell | Aug 6, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 160 (next | show all)
Easily, with long-practiced and even astonishing skill, speaking with the voice of a British reporter who is forced, despite himself, toward political action and commitment, Greene tells a complex but compelling story of intrigue and counter-intrigue, bombing and murder. Into it is mixed the rivalry of two white men for a Vietnamese girl. These elements are all subordinate to the political thesis which they dramatize and which is stated baldly and explicitly throughout the book.
 
There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American
 

» Add other authors (53 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Greene, GrahamAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Caddell, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
English, BillCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gorra, MichaelSuggestions for Further Readingsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Grandfield, GeoffIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lundblad, JaneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Magnus, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scheepmaker, H.J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, ZadieIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Springer, KätheÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stingl, NikolausÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stone, RobertIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Valja, JiøíTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions. — Byron
I do not like being moved; for the will is excited, and action
Is a most dangerous thing; I tremble for something factitious,
Some malpractice of heart and illegitimate process;
We're so prone to these things, with our terrible notions of duty. — A. H. Clough
Dedication
Dear Rene and Phuong - I have asked permission to dedicate this book to you not only in memory of the happy evenings I have spent with you in Saigon over the last five years, but also because I have quite shamelessly borrowed the location of your flat to house one of my characters, and your name, Phuong, for the convenience of readers because it is simple, beautiful, and easy to pronounce, which is not true of all your country-women's names. You will both realized I have borrowed little else, certainly not the characters of anyone in Viet Nam. Pyle, Granger, Fowler, Vigot, Joe - these have had no originals in the life of Saigon or Hanoi, and General The is dead: shot in the back, so they say. Even the historical events have been rearranged For example, the big bomb near the Continental preceded and did not follow the bicycle bombs. I have no scruples about such small changes. This is a story and not a piece of history, and I hope that as a story about a few imaginary characters it will pass for both of you one hot Saigon evening. Yours affectionately, Graham Greene
First words
After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.
Quotations
innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (3)

This novel is a study of New World hope and innocence set in an Old World of violence. The scene is Saigon in the violent years when the French were desperately trying to hold their footing in the Far East. The principal characters are a skeptical British journalist, his attractive Vietnamese mistress, and an eager young American sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission.

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While the French Army in Indo-China is grappling with the Vietminh, back in Saigon a young and high-minded American named Pyle begins to channel economic aid to a "Third Force."

Caught between French colonialists and the Vietminh, Fowler, the narrator and seasoned foreign correspondent, observes: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." As young Pyle's policies blunder on into bloodshed, the older man finds it impossible to stand aside as an observer. But Fowler's motives for intervening are suspect, both to the police and to himself: for Pyle has robbed him of his Vietnamese mistress.
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