Under the skilful hand of Graeme Greene, the tone of The Quiet American changes with
each reading. The soft voice of Fowler contrasts with the violence of the world around him.
After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the Catinat
So opens the novel. Not until the novel’s ending do we realise Fowler knows Pyle to be dead, although he pretends to himself Pyle may have escaped the doom Fowler himself helped arrange, if only by proxy. What exactly drives Fowler to this – for he knows what will come of Pyle should Fowler simply stand by a window, reading. Although he pretends otherwise, Fowler himself does not really understand his motives. Despair in the false foundations of Pyle’s good intentions; the hypocrisy which sees innocents die to impress the politicians of home good cause; jealously; fear of being alone; justice – all these play a role, yet even Fowler never knows the predominant emotion. What angers him most is Pyle’s blindness to the hypocrisy and faults of his beliefs, yet anger is an emotion the repressed Fowler can not express.
Throughout the novel runs Greene’s love of Vietnam, and of Saigon. Even now, one can walk the streets of that vibrant city and see the places he mentioned, the streets he walked, the hotels where he dined. Even in the midst of war he paints the beauty of the lane, of the rice fields stretching to the horizon, of the mountains and her rivers. It is a love of the people and their gentle ways, at such odds with the violence slowly descending from the north as the French War of Indochine fails and the Vietnam War looms.
Yet it is Pyle’s own just beliefs, which Fowler sees as fundamentally wrong, which so anger him, although anger is an emotion he cannot express. Similarly, Fowler can never express the nature of his feelings for Phuong, whose name means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous and nothing rises from its ashes. Besides the physical, intimacy is never an option.
The themes, however are constant. Overall, it is a question of futility – can one’s actions
really change anything, let alone prevent a war. Pyle’s actions may hasten it, Fowler’s cannot prevent it. Yet, knowing this, Fowler can still baulk at the impersonal methods used by Pyle, and at his disregard for life as he seeks the best image for the people back home.
The Quiet American is typical Greene – understated, never defined. It is a love song to Saigon, and the people who still live there. It reflects on a war that is finishing and one that is about to start, on the lives of the journalists who cover it, drinking champagne on the rooftop bar of The Majestic as bombs fall in the north. Just below the surface, never forgotten, is the destruction of the lives who live through it; the people with no voice, such as the girls in their white silk trousers, walking along the Rue Catinat.