Reviewed: Graham Greene, The Quiet American, Penguin
Before he travelled the world, met Fidel Castro, and became one of the greatest chroniclers of the twentieth-century man’s consciousness, Graham Greene was an unpopular schoolboy prone to bouts of depression. He once swallowed a handful of aspirin pills and went swimming in the school pool, hoping to lose consciousness and drown. Neither of those things happened; he received several weeks of detention for trying. Whether it was his own troubled mind or postwar weariness, his novels are often imbued with inconsolable anxiety. The Quiet American is no different. Between his estranged Catholic wife, the futility of old age and the prospect of losing his Vietnamese lover to a younger man, Greene’s protagonist Thomas can find no reprieve in his waking moments: ‘For a moment I had elation as on the instant of waking before one remembers.’
Greene constructs a riveting narrative set in what used to be Indochina. The titular character, a ‘quiet American’ named Pyle, is an undercover CIA agent determined to spread democracy in the ‘Far East’. Pyle becomes blinded by his own ideals, unable to see that his operations are fuelling a war resulting in the deaths of the very people he is trying to liberate. In a way, this figure of the ‘quiet American’ becomes a kind of fundamentalist—he believes people should die for ‘democracy’. The novel suggests that there is a real danger of loving ideas more than people, of being educated and not sympathetic. Greene’s commentary on the colonial tug of war over Vietnam often involves letting the political and personal storylines in The Quiet American mirror each other. Thomas and Pyle clumsily compete for Phuong, a Vietnamese woman whose name means Phoenix, though Thomas remarks ‘nothing nowadays is fabulous, and nothing rises from its ashes’. Neither man really understands her—through this character, Vietnam, too, remains symbolically out of the foreigner’s grasp. Sometimes it is difficult to see what is being fought over: a country or a person; during a conversation between the two men early in the book, Thomas insists on wanting to ‘keep’ Phuong, and Pyle agrees, saying ‘we both have her interests at heart’.
The book is highly interior, locking us into the viewpoint of Thomas, an ageing and unhappy British correspondent. Dispatched to Saigon as a reporter, he shares a flat with Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress. Upon realising how little she knows about European affairs—‘if Hitler had come into the conversation, she would have interrupted to ask who he was’—he decides she is ‘wonderfully ignorant’. ‘It’s a cliché to call them children,’ he says of Phuong—and by extension, Asian people, claiming that the local Vietnamese women love in return for ‘kindness, security, the presents you give them’. Later, he prattles on about what he presumes Vietnamese people want (‘for one day to be much the same as another’) in front of two local sentries, who probably know better than anyone what their own people would want. There are numerous opportunities in the novel to register satirical intent, but Greene does not signal his protagonist’s tone-deafness. In fact, any lingering doubt over whether Greene endorses his narrator’s blundering cultural blind spots is dispelled when Thomas becomes the unlikely hero of the novel, the one who neutralises the dangerous American. If the protagonist is unaware of his Eurocentrism, so is Greene.
Reading reviews of the novel, I came across a critique that labelled Greene’s novel as a ‘Western novel with an Eastern backdrop’. The Quiet American is packed with a lyrical catalogue of visuals—intended, supposedly, to convey the ‘spell’ of a distant, exotic land. The narrator’s dreamy explanation of why he wishes never to be called home is that Vietnam is where you forget your own name and where ‘the real background’ holds you ‘as a smell does’. However, the descriptions of ‘rice-fields under a flat late sun’, ‘the peasants in their hats like limpets’ and ‘fishers’ fragile cranes hovering over the fields like mosquitos’ are often longer than necessary, and since they do not serve a function other than to emphasise the exoticism of the setting, they become jarring and even voyeuristic.
There is something very derivative about curating a so-called ‘Eastern’ aesthetic and sidelining native characters in their own land. Rather than meaningfully affecting the plot in any way, the Vietnamese characters are little more than background figures who exist to add a certain ‘authenticity’ to the novel’s setting. The interiority of people such as Phuong’s sister, Miss Hei, the women who gossip ‘like birds’ on the landing and the soldiers in the tower are never explored. Even Phuong, a main character, is sketched in such a way that she could just about be any local woman (‘I couldn’t see her face, only the white silk trousers and the long flowered robe, but I knew her for all that’). This has the effect of bringing about a kind of safe exoticism where the (presumably) Western reader can enjoy images of opium dens and rice paddies without any of the discomfort of taking on a Vietnamese person’s perspective.
This narrative feature is not unusual when one considers the longstanding obsession that white Anglophone authors have with non-Western aesthetics. It is an obsession that rarely involves attributing speech and interiority to non-Western characters, which continues to this day. Likewise, Greene’s novel is not so much about the Vietnam War and the people caught in the crossfire as it is about the anxieties plaguing two Anglo-American men—the futility that comes with old age, and the humiliation of not being chosen by the one we love.
Reading this twentieth-century text, with its centring of the white person’s experience in a foreign country and obvious colonising gaze, was not new or particularly fun. It reflects how the popular idea of Asia has traditionally been shaped by white authors. This was true when The Quiet American was published in 1955. Since then, more and more contemporary Asian authors have been eager to wrestle Asia away from the grip of Western imagination, writing novels about people who have inner lives that are multifaceted and messy. This task is, of course, less simple than it sounds, given the question of whether one’s experiences are considered universally accessible.
For a Western writer, there is rarely any doubt that the personal is also universal, nor is there much thought given to making their experiences ‘accessible’ for readers. Other writers are not so lucky, tasked with trimming cultural elements from their narratives so as not to alienate outsiders, or asked to make their stories more ‘true’ to their ethnicity in reductive ways. It is a shame that fiction’s so-called ‘universal accessibility’ continues to take the default white reader’s understanding as its primary metric. Writers outside the West eschew experiences that are deemed too ‘foreign’ to be understood by a white reader, yet the things deemed too ‘foreign’ are only foreign if we assume the Western experience to be the default experience and the default reader to be a white person.
I am reminded of Bong Joon-Ho’s acceptance speech at the Oscars in March 2020, when we still talked about things other than vaccination rates and coronavirus variants. His most recent film, Parasite, had just won four Oscar awards as a film laden with cultural details that only Korean people would understand and laugh at. Bong was not worried about how these would translate to a global audience, and his acceptance speech conveyed why perfectly, as he echoed Martin Scorsese’s sentiment: ‘The most personal is the most creative.’
Accordingly, this notion is being emphasised in recent times, with writers such as Mieko Kawakami (Breasts and Eggs), Timothy Mo (Pure) and Nam Le (The Boat) determined to write against the tired image of Asia as it appears in fiction and popular narratives more broadly, away from stock imagery of geishas, Mt Fuji, snake charmers and so on. Alice Pung’s One Hundred Days, for example, is part of a relatively new literary exploration of the complex mother–daughter dynamics in a migrant household. More importantly, the lens of ‘otherness’ is discarded in favour of conveying stories with the sense of obviousness that such common experiences warrant. Another case in point is Minae Mizumura’s novel Inheritance from Mother, which refuses to include clues or explanations for the Confucian ideals of ‘self-sacrifice’ and ‘filial piety’ that govern characters’ interactions. She places the onus of interpretation entirely on the cultural outsider who picks up her book.
In its foreshadowing of Americans’ involvement in one of the messiest conflicts of the twentieth century, Greene’s novel was ahead of its time. In other respects, however, it was not so radical. Sixty-six years later, it is nice finally to see some change.
Neala Qing Guo is a student at the University of Melbourne studying a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and economics.