Artizan street library reading groups thoughts on The Quiet American by Graham Greene


quiet americanOur attention this time was taken by Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The quiet American, his fictional account of CIA involvement in the French war in Indo-China. An English journalist, Fowler, befriends a young idealist American, Pyle, who becomes his rival for the love of his mistress, Phuong, and who, he discovers, is supplying terrorist bombs to anti-communist militants. Finally Fowler delivers Pyle to the communists to stop him.

Rory had  quite a phase of reading Greene. One thing this one impressed on you was the indigenous nature of the French colonials, some of whom might never have lived in France. Another was the typical languid cynicism and ennui of Greene’s character, Fowler. Had we known that Greene claimed to have played Russian roulette as a young man? Well, it struck Rory that this sort of thing was pathological in the sense of a lack of empathy and responsibility. Made him want to shake the Fowler character out of his opiated stupor. And as for women, isn’t Fowler’s attitude disparaging, treating his lover Phuong as a kind of concubine? It was boys’ literature, like a lot of Greene, notwithstanding the effort he put into Travels with my aunt. Nevertheless, Rory remained a fan, just wanted a bit less Weltschmerz in this one.

Rory had sent all this in and we picked up some of the points as we went along. Russian roulette top of the list – Fowler has an explicit death wish, coming up with stuff like: ‘Death was the only absolute value in my world.’ And: ‘Even though my reason wanted the state of death, I was afraid like a virgin of the act.’ Part of the make-up Greene wants for this character, according to Malcolm, to make him basically unlikable, so that, when he finally sets up Pyle for assassination, any altruism in the act is played down to a rock-bottom limit.

Tim thought one theme of the book was a fatalism about relationships, as exemplified by Greene’s novel The end of the affair. The object of the two main characters’ affections, Phuong, could be one of a number of Jane Austen’s women. Jenny, on the other hand, had detected real romantic love in Phuong (for Fowler), Liz the same in Fowler (for Phuong), both of which Malcolm read the book as explicitly denying. Fowler’s character is made to endorse sexist and racist attitudes in a realist, documentary way – Phuong is the sexually active lure for her sister’s machinations to find a ‘rice-ticket’ Western husband. Jenny accepted the editorial comment by Zadie Smith, that Phuong is deliberately kept at a distance in the novel – the longest part devoted to her is her recounting the plot of a film she has seen.

Anyway, Malcolm could only echo Rory’s points about the main character’s (and Greene’s) cynicism, but wasn’t it laid on with a trowel? A first-person narrative of complete self-absorption in the midst of a gory colonial war. Yet with Greene there’s always a bit more to it. When the book was published in the USA in 1956 it caused a scandal because of its implication of US involvement in terrorism. In revenge, United Artists made a film of it in 1958 completely excising that part of the plot, much to Greene’s disgust. So, in real terms, the polemical importance of the novel overcame any idea of Greene exploiting the conflict in the cause of grinding out his own angst.

Yet angst there is, proper Roman Catholic stuff, with a world-weary policeman reading Pascal’s Pensées (famous for getting around problems in proving God exists by proposing a wager – if you bet on his existence, you can’t lose…) And there’s matter-of-fact violence, like napalm bombing by the French (some of us were surprised they used it before the Americans), Tim pointing out that there was viciousness on either side in the war of that time. All the realities which Greene could be expected to reflect were racist, colonial ones.

What, demanded Sara, was the significance of Pyle’s pet dog? (The young American has an annoying dog which appears quite late in the novel and is killed when he is killed.) Was it a symbol of wishful obedience, of oppression? Maybe. Malcolm thought it was there so that the policeman would be able to find traces of cement on its paws and know Pyle had visited Fowler on the day of his murder. Basic narrative mechanics. But you never know.

For Tim, the book had remarkable prescience about the marketing of Western liberalism to the East: what about the American’s devotion to his fictional political theorist, York Harding and a ‘third way’, neither colonial nor communist? (‘Third way’ – talk about prescience! Who would believe Tony Blair had got the idea from a Greene lampoon of all places?) Jenny even saw a symbolic comparison between Fowler and Pyle’s relationship and that of the UK and the US. Another strong element of the book for Tim was its importance as a study of war journalism and its obsessiveness – Greene’s character doesn’t leave it as a mere vocation. In fact Greene marks the point at which a sort of modern war journalism is formed as opposed to its jingoistic precursors.

So where, Sara wondered, did the book evidence Greene’s religious concern, which he always has, with redemption? Complex that. The only candidate for Malcolm was Fowler’s fingering of Pyle, the sacrifice of his ‘friend’ for the greater good. And, as we’ve already seen, the character’s motives are muddied in cynicism and despair. What you might want to consider is that for the Catholic Greene you never get beyond a sort of ethical individualism which sees itself as leaving idealism/ideology as the devil’s work and thus deprives itself of any means of transmission, a permanent anomic state of doubt so you can only ever guess what the right action is, making a bet like Pascal did about theism.

So there you go. Next time, something completely different, Christa Wolf’s one-woman synopsis of the Trojan War, Cassandra. We meet 6pm Monday 19 January at Artizan Street Library.

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