Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Quiet American

I finished “The Quiet American” by Grahame Greene. It is a moving novel which explores the character of an English journalist, Thomas Fowler, and his relationship with his local beloved, Phuong and also his obsession with an American spy, Alden Pyle.

Thomas Fowler, the protagonist of the novel, broods over a variety of public and personal notions. Fowler quotes on the colonized Vietnam and its people, the First Indo China War and destructive interventions of the United States in Vietnam’s affairs which makes the novel a political prophecy. Furthermore Fowler broods over a host of personal issues including the nature of his relationship with Phuong, old age, loneliness, duty, and God. That Fowler touches different issues on two levels of public and personal makes the novel much appealing to the reader.

Fowler, the unreliable narrator of the novel stands as a cynical European and a Sartrean existentialism. He has non-romantic and unconventional attitudes. Fowler is a cynical Englishman who hates colonialism and foreign intervention in political affairs of the third world. That is why during the course of the novel he insists on disengagement. Although he sympathizes with the local people, and even chooses a local girl as his beloved, he declares that he does not take sides. This turns out to be an irony later in the novel when he is involved in Pyle’s assassination. Although Pyle’s peculiar naivety is of great interest to him, he chooses to take side (against Pyle) later in the novel. This irony reveals that it is impossible not to take sides in a chaotic world where a naive virgin like Pyle acts like a destructive colonial machine.

On a personal level Fowler is a beautiful character. His cynicism does not only concern neo-colonization and the like. He is a deeply cynical man inside his psyche. He is apparently in love with Phuong. His feelings are extremely unconventional for he openly talks of the carnal nature of his affection and calls it love. However he yearns for his definition of love. He is desperately in love with Phuong and the appearance of Pyle as a rival makes him lose his mind and even cry. Phuong for Fowler is no ideal woman. She is not a shining star in Fowler’s life. She is a companion who should accompany him in old age and see him to his grave. Phuong, for Fowler, is an escape from loneliness, and this is what makes her so precious to him. He has had better women, but Phuong is the one whom Fowler “has not injured”; who is simple and obsequious; who is the only person who can see him aging and die. He is not alone with Phuong and therefore she is his true love.

Fowler is in contrasted Alden Pyle. Alden Pyle represents the idealistic American who works for the early neo-colonial United States that seek to intervene in national affairs of third world countries who are wearied by the old Colonial powers such as Britain and France. Pyle is an optimist American who acts as a CIA agent in Vietnam and represents his country as a “third force” that should establish democracy. This idealism stems from Pyle’s naivety. He acts like a prophet of an American religion. Sacrifices don’t matter to him as far as they contribute to the establishment of American democracy in the third world.

Eventually Fowler’s act of stopping Pyle could be investigated in different layers. Fowler could have been jealous of Pyle’s love for Phuong, or he could see him as a destructive yet stupid CIA agent whose ideas were in contrast with his. A mixture of both could describe Fowler’s final act against Pyle.

Whether you like novels full of acute characterization and touching internal monologues, or whether your are interested in historical and political novels, “The Quiet American” is a good choice.


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