A Book You Should Read (or Listen to or Watch)


I’m reading The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Actually, I’m reading it, listening to it, and watching the movie made from it simultaneously.

This is easy to do now if you are willing to pay to get a good book in audio form and rent the movie. (If there is one.) The obvious advantage is that you can get through it faster. But I’ve found that it also helps me get into it more deeply. And this, I think, helps me get more out of it.

Anyway… The Quiet American is a very good novel. If you haven’t read it, you should.

Graham Greene is one of those writers – like Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and Vladimir Nabokov – that make my authorial ambitions feel vainglorious. He imparts more in a single sentence than I can in a paragraph. (Or a dozen paragraphs.)

The Quiet American is a touching love story set in an interesting period of history that reveals much about a culture and a country. It is, in this way, equal to The Great Gatsby.

While The Great Gatsby gives you an insider’s view of America during the late stages of the Industrial Revolution, The Quiet American shows you much about the beginnings of the Vietnam War. It was a time when the French were the occupying army and yet still in many ways doing the imperialist work of the USA.

Like Gatsby, the narrator (Fowler) is not the protagonist but a “reporter.” He has been separated from his English wife for five years while on assignment in Vietnam. His job is to document the futile attempt by the French to keep North Vietnam from falling to the communists. The protagonist, Pyle, a young American medical aid officer/spy, falls in love with the narrator’s paramour, Phuang. He eventually wins her from him and is then assassinated. That’s just the beginning.

The story is good but the writing – and by that I mean the density of thought and observation on everfy page – is what will make you feel, if you have ever wanted to write a novel, that you shouldn’t try.

Even when the dialog is polemical, it’s very good. For example:

(PYLE) “They don’t want communism.”

(FOWLER) “They want enough rice,” I said. “They don’t want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don’t want our white skins around telling the what they want.”

(PYLE) “If Indo-China goes…”

(FOWLER) “I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes…”

(PYLE) “They’ll be forced to believe what they are told, they won’t be allowed to think for themselves.”

(FOWLER) “Thought’s a luxury, Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?”

(PYLE) “You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?”

(FOWLER) “Oh, no,” I said. “We’ve brought them up in our ideas. We’ve brought then dangerous games, and that’s why we are waiting here, hoping we don’t get our throats cut.”