Piano forte

The Quiet American

Fowler is a correspondent in Saigon, occasionally making trips into the heart of the Indo-Chinese war. But insofar a coherent country called Greeneland might ever be said to exist, he's in it. Whether in the city or in the middle of other people's fighting, he finds himself on the fault line between the personal and political, as Pyle, arousing suspicions as a visiting American without clear portfolio, arouses passions too in Fowler's Vietnamese mistress Phuong. As Fowler grapples, lonely and godless, with a conscience that cannot tell one wrong from another, innocent people start to die as terrorists plant makeshift bombs throughout the city: Fowler knows who may really have caused their deaths.

Greene is able to squeeze moral good from his villains by a subtle twisting of typical Manicheanisms. Here he flips over the (once topical) dichotomy set up by the self-proclaimed heroes, America. Communism, for all its faults, shares those faults with so-called democracies; meanwhile its almost theological observances sneak in a note of ascetic virtue. Both ideologies prop up evil acts, as Greene shows, but at least Communism means it. It's an interesting take on the politics, the product of a hyperrealism that can only be bred out of war and the logical extreme of cultural tourism: you feel he'd never get away with The Quiet Vietnamese.

More personally, even if he were to win back Phuong, Fowler would have to make his decisions alone, without consultation or prayer. This is life without spiritual community, life for the atheist who, unlike his estranged and undivorceable wife, cannot confess, cannot confide. He must instead deaden his existential pain with a poppy-pipe and the love of Phuong, more a muffling, resolute tolerance than affection.

In the course of the novel Greene drags Fowler, as he has done to so many of his other protagonists, through intrusive social closeness and abject spiritual loneliness. The distance between Fowler and his actions, bridged by thin threads of reason and humanism, is sometimes too great to be plausible. The matter-of-factness of the climax, itself practically a denouement, leaves one dazed and full of unanswered, unanswerable questions. Nonetheless its tense thrillerisms pull The Quiet American back from the brink of a reflexive reductio ad absurdum. They wrap it up, disguise it, deliver it with little fuss into the hands of the reader, who receives it and takes it to his heart, a quiet book about a quiet man, each as innocuous and explosive as a home-made bomb.