The Quiet American

Review :

"That was my first instinct -- to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. 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."

As if this book were not brilliant enough for its multi-layered plot and meaningful, carefully written prose, it was also a harbinger of the disaster awaiting the United State's involvement in Vietnam. If policy makers would have read this book and realized that they were consulting an oracle, many unnecessary deaths would have been avoided; many lives would have never been shattered, and the billions of dollars spent trying to destroy a mythical idea could have been spent advancing humanity in numerous more productive ways.

Instead of being lauded as a cautionary tale, the book was declared anti-American.

Alden Pyle, not the typical blustering, pushy American abroad but a rather quiet American, was in Vietnam. He wasn't there to learn about the culture. He was there to figure out the best way to impose his Western point of view on a country in turmoil. He had been fully indoctrinated into the idea of American Exceptionalism. This was a strength because believing in oneself and a cause is essential to achieving success, but it was also a weakness because it potentially keeps an American from recognizing what has gone wrong for others will also go wrong for them. It also keeps an American from seeing the value in a foreign culture and that the concepts of others of what makes a wonderful life may be completely different from what Americans are being led to believe is an exceptional way of life.

Alden Pyle, in other words, was a very dangerous man.

Thomas Fowler was a world weary British journalist, addicted to opium, and living with a 20 year old Vietnamese woman named Phuong. There were some reverential descriptions by Fowler about his relationship with opium and Phuong dutifully serving him his pipe in a manner reminiscent of Japanese tea ceremonies. "It was a superstition among them that a lover who smoked would always return, even from France. A man's sexual capacity might be injured by smoking, but they would always prefer a faithful to a potent lover. Now she was kneading the little ball of hot paste on the convex margin of the bowl and I could smell the opium. There is no smell like it."

Fowler had found a simple way of life that made him way happier than I think he ever expected to be. He had a job that he understood. He had a reasonably nice apartment. He had a beautiful girlfriend who provided him with the comfort of companionship and sexual gratification. He didn't need anything more than this.

With the arrival of Pyle, this nirvana existence was suddenly in jeopardy. Pyle became enamored with Phuong. Fowler had a dilemma which Pyle soon exploited in his quest to "save" Phuong from the lecherous clutches of this old world colonizer. I hadn't really thought about it until this reading, but Pyle's need to save Phuong was symbolic of the American belief that Europe was corrupt and only America could guide the world forward. Fowler was British and the French colonized Vietnam, but the Brits were the largest, "most successful" colonizers the world had ever seen.

Come with me little girl. I am pure of heart.

Fowler's dilemma was a serious disadvantage, given that he was already married to a devoted Catholic woman back in England who did not want to divorce him. Fowler's poignant letters to his wife to try and change her mind were revealing about his true feelings about Phuong. The reader might wonder if losing Phuong was just an inconvenience or he really did love her. "Perhaps you will believe when I tell you that to lose her will be, for me, the beginning of death." Fowler's years of marriage had left he and his wife scarred and battered. A mere prick by one to the other would now bleed as heavily as a mortal wound.

Pyle was irritatingly trying to play fair in the tug of war over Phuong. Fowler had no such illusions about playing fair. He definitely subscribed to the adage, "All is fair in love and war." This is Vietnam in the midst of a long struggle and love is always more poignant against the backdrop of war. Phuong's more practical sister wanted her to go with Pyle because he was free to marry her. I kept thinking to myself as this love triangle unfolded that the one person whom we really didn't know her feelings was Phuong. Fowler at several points accused Pyle of treating Phuong like a child, which was true. To Pyle, she was a mere child who must be saved from her circumstances. He was the white knight and sitting so high on his horse that one might wonder if he really wanted her or simply wanted her away from Fowler. The American Imperialist knew best. Out with the old and in with the new.

How far would Fowler go to win this battle with Pyle By the end of the book, you will see.

The frustrating thing for Fowler was that he liked Pyle, and Pyle, despite his misgivings about Fowler, liked him as well. It is so much easier when our adversaries are asshats with few redeeming qualities. We can feel vindicated in our all consuming loathing of them. Under different circumstances, Fowler and Pyle might have been lifelong friends, but there were other things percolating that would keep them from being friends. What exactly was Pyle up to in Vietnam And what did he mean about all this blathering about creating a third force Fowler, in the course of his job, would have crippled the budding friendship by eventually revealing the truth, so alas, there really was no chance for Pyle and Fowler to walk off into the sunset together, conversing about the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Still I would want to ask Pyle, out of all the beautiful women in all of Vietnam, you had to pick mine

So you can read this book at whatever depth you chose and still find it to be one of the best books you've ever read. I do believe this is my third read, and I made new connections and observations that I hadn't with the previous two reads. It is such a powerful story for such a short book, proving that epic tales don't have to come in whale size packages.

I want to thank my friend Lisa Lieberman for prompting this latest reading of The Quiet American. Her new book The Glass Forest is a tribute to Graham Greene's novel. I have been wanting to reread The Quiet American for some time now, and her book release was the perfect excuse.

Lisa is giving away a free ebook of her first book, All the Wrong Places for the month of November as a lead up to the release of The Glass Forest on December 10th. Don't miss out! Click this link to get your free book! All the Wrong Places Free eBook You must discover for yourself why I call her the Queen of the Hollywood Noir.

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