Sooner or later one has to take sides. If one is to remain human.
Graham Greene’s works are often divided into two categories which I believe were his own suggestions: his serious novels and his “entertainments,” the latter usually coming in the form of spy novels. My favorite Greene works seem to be the ones that blend elements of both styles; while The Heart of the Matter is probably his best-regarded work (it’s appears in the “second 100” in The Novel 100, made the TIME 100, and was #40 on the Modern Library 100), my favorite Greene work is Our Man in Havana, an entertainment that also satirizes the Cold War maneuvering of the great powers. The Quiet American (#67 on the Guardian 100) also straddles the line between the two forms, with a plot built around international intrigue during the Vietnamese war for independence that also poses two different questions around moral relativism.
Alden Pyle, the “quiet American” of the title, was, in life, anything but quiet; the title is twice ironic, both because Pyle was a talker and meddler and also because he’s quiet on a more permanent level when the book opens. The story then rolls backwards, told by English reporter Thomas Fowler, who recalls his first sighting of the American economic attaché:
I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart. With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze he seemed incapable of harm.
Fowler becomes caught in two nets woven by Pyle, one as Pyle attempts to steal Fowler’s mistress (Fowler is married to a woman who won’t grant him a divorce, whereas Pyle is willing to marry Fowler’s mistress), the other as it becomes clear that Pyle is up to no good in his clandestine duties for an ostensibly economic mission in Vietnam. Fowler’s moral conundrum – what to do as he realizes Pyle might be dangerous – is further complicated when Pyle saves his life during a guerrilla attack on a tower where they seek refuge after their car runs out of gas.
Greene has Fowler eventually make a decision – circumstances all but force him to choose – about Pyle, but avoids casting Fowler as any sort of hero or even protagonist by making him a serial adulterer and a user of (at least) his Vietnamese mistress while having him owe his life to Pyle along the way. Even when Fowler does act, it’s passive, almost a hands-free approach that robs him of the benefit (or satisfaction?) of making a clear, morally unclouded decision.
Layered on top of the Fowler/Pyle plot is the broader and less morally ambiguous question of what the hell France and especially the United States were doing in Vietnam in the first place. Pyle stands in for the domino theory foreign policy of the United States; he’s an idealistic innocent, full of ideas he learned in school or from books (largely from his ideological idol, York Harding, of whom Fowler says, “He gets hold of an idea and then alters every situation to fit the idea”) and devoid of both real-world experience and any practical understanding of the people and culture of the country he’s supposed to save. Phuong, Fowler’s paramour and later the object of Pyle’s affection, represents Vietnam in a less than flattering light – naïve, opium-addicted, in need of protection (according to Pyle) or of economic assistance (according to Phuong’s sister), controlled by outside forces, inscrutable to both Fowler and Pyle.
It is nearly impossible to read the book now without seeing it as a powerful indictment of the U.S. war in Iraq, even though it was written fifty years prior to the 2003 invasion. (The 2004 edition, marking the centennial of Greene’s birth, includes a foreword by Robert stone that makes this connection explicit.) Greene inveighs against the involvement of a western nation in a part of the world it doesn’t know or understand where there is no direct relation to the western countries’ national interests, which parallels many arguments against U.S. involvement in Iraq. Greene oversimplifies or just misses one major argument for indirect engagement – forcing the Soviets to ramp up military spending on multiple engagements increased the strain on their economy, and may have led to the regime’s collapse in the 1980s – but is on stronger ground when he argues against grafting western mores on to non-western cultures, or when arguing that the assumption that our interests and those of local people in these foreign countries are aligned well enough to justify any military action we take or military support we provide.
I’m off to California this evening to see a high school showcase event at the MLB Academy in Compton (insert N.W.A. joke here) but should be free for one dinner in Los Angeles, so if anyone has a must-hit suggestion (sushi is always welcome – I could go to Koi, but it’s a bit out of my way) I’m all ears.