The Quiet American Re-viewing a classic text
What’s been your book of choice over the balmy days of summer – some of them balmy, anyway?
If you’re used to reading emails for work, writing emails for work and playing with a substantial number of words every day (social media, crosswords, shopping lists!), on holiday break you tend to miss them like best friends. The perfect antidote to your loneliness? Holidays are when you can indulge yourself and go wild reading all the books you’ve put off reading all year. And that’s just one part of what I did during my break! Along with walks in parks with new family members and savouring the tastes of Peruvian cuisine, from yellow potatoes and purple corn to ceviche (lime juice-cured ocean fish fillets).
Arriving back in my home away from home, the books at my bedside were always a treat. That first day in my holiday space I’d looked along an unfamiliar but promising bookshelf and immediately spotted a copy of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American – a classic that I’d read in my teens and remembered for its setting – Vietnam mid-1950s – but couldn’t really remember the storyline. Worth a second plunge, I thought – and turns out I couldn’t have been more intuitive.
I’d forgotten Greene’s deft hand at characterisation, and his early leisurely pace in plotting which deceived this reader, allowing for the pleasant surprise of a quickening of intrigue towards the end.
But I hadn’t forgotten Greene’s emphatic use of fiction to investigate morality and politics. In this novel his purpose is to use storytelling to pique a consciousness of how some people are so self-righteous they’re blind to the humanity of others. It’s a recurring theme in current international politics, which makes Greene’s The Quiet American perhaps even more relevant to society today than when it was first published. Maybe if Greene was still writing in the C21st he’d call his next book The Loud American instead, and it would be about a particularly outspoken presidential twit. Or as Collins Thesaurus describes a twit: a fool, idiot or jerk, in American slang.
So, having been so moved by the novel, I decided to share some moments with the SSOA membership and our wider readership …
The Quiet American by Graham Greene, republished by Vintage London 2004. Presented here are excerpts from two scenes set in the north of Vietnam, a country occupied by the French and already by the mid-1950s being torn in two by war:
Immediately below us stood, sat and lay the whole population of Phat Diem. Catholics, Buddhists, pagans, they had all packed their most valued possessions – a cooking-stove, a lamp, a mirror, a wardrobe, some mats, a holy picture – and moved into the Cathedral precincts. Here in the north it would be bitterly cold when darkness came, and already the Cathedral was full: there was no more shelter; even on the stairs to the bell tower every step was occupied, and all the time more people crowded through the gates, carrying their babies and household goods. They believed, whatever their religion, that here they would be safe. While we watched, a young man with a rifle in Vietnamese uniform pushed his way through: he was stopped by a priest, who took his rifle from him. The father at my side said in explanation. ‘We are neutral here. This is God’s territory.’
I thought, ‘It’s a strange poor population God has in his kingdom, frightened, cold, starving’ – “I don’t know how we are going to feed these people,” the priest told me – you’d think a great King would do better than that.’ But then I thought, ‘It’s always the same wherever one goes – it’s not the most powerful rulers who have the happiest populations.’ (pp 40-41)
The lieutenant said to me, ‘We will go and see,’ and following the sentry we picked our way along a muddy overgrown path between two fields. Twenty yards beyond the farm buildings, in a narrow ditch, we came on what we sought: a woman and a small boy. They were very clearly dead: a small neat clot of blood on the woman’s forehead, and the child might have been sleeping. He was about six years old and he lay like an embryo in the womb with his little bony knees drawn up.
‘Mal chance,’ the lieutenant said. He bent down and turned the child over. He was wearing a holy medal round his neck, and I said to myself, ‘The juju doesn’t work.’ There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, ‘I hate war.’
The lieutenant said, ‘Have you see enough?’ speaking savagely, almost as though I had been responsible for these deaths. Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility. (p 45)
Zadie Smith on Graham Greene – from her Introduction to the 2004 republication of The Quiet American. Three excerpts:
- Greene’s vocation
‘When Greene died in 1991, Kingsley Amis – a man not given to generous estimations of his peers – gave him a neat, fitting obituary: ‘He will be missed all over the world. Until today, he was our greatest living novelist’.’ Amis’ and Greene’s vision of a great novelist was different from the present conception: it was of a working man with a pen. An unpretentious man, in and of the world, who wrote for readers and not critics, and produced as many words per day as a journalist. English writers these days work in spasms, both in quantity and quality, and so keen are they to separate “entertainments” from “literature” that they end up writing neither. This was one of the few distinctions Greene did not concern himself with. Reportage turned to novel turned to film; he got several short stories from the material he found in his own dream diary. He even occasionally dreamt-to-order: finding himself stuck in the middle of a novel one day, he went to bed and slept on the problem, waking up in the morning fully furnished with the solution. ‘The book was hesitating … the dream came and seemed to fit.’ Any writer would envy an imagination of such irresistible contrapuntal thrust – he never lacked a story, he was drowning in them. …’ (p xii)
‘There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as”The Quiet American”.’ (xiii)
2. Greene on detail
‘The hope he offers us is of the kind that only close observers can give. He defends us with details, and the details fight the good fight against big, featureless, impersonal ideas like Pyle’s [the character who believes in a military Third Force]. Too much time has been spent defending Greene against the taint of journalism; we should think of him instead as the greatest journalist there ever was. If more journalists could report as well as Greene bringing us the explosion in the square, how long would we retain the stomach to fight the wars we do? The devil is in the details for Greene, but redemption is also there. The accretion of perfectly rendered, everyday detail makes us feel human, beats away the statisticians, toils us back to ourselves. How many journalists can write reportage – or anything else – like this?
… he smiled brightly, neatly, efficiently, a military abbreviation of a smile.”
… the gunfire travelling like a clock-hand around the horizon.”
Will you have a cup of tea?’ ‘Thank you, I have had three cups already.’ It sounded like a question and answer in a phrase book. (pp xi – xii)
3. Greene’s politics
‘ … this is a fiercely politically engaged work. The dissection of political naiveté in the person of Pyle seems to gain in resonance with each year that has passed since publication.’ (x)
Finally, some more direct Greene quotes:
‘I hope to God you know what you are doing. Oh I know your motives are good, they always are. … I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings. And that applies to your country too …’
‘But the quiet American does not learn. To the end he remains determined that belief is more important than peace, ideas more vital than people. His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism: he believes there must be belief. … [The character] Fowler is at least idealistic enough to believe that there is not an idea on this earth worth killing for.’ (p xi)
What more can this humble holiday reader add to Greene’s original raw quotes and to the praise from high literary quarters? Nothing more than to observe that the true test of the quality of an author’s work is its longevity over time and space – praised down the generations and relevant at home as well as in translation across cultural borders.
Here’s to Greene … still!
Copyright C V Williams
Photo credits: Wiki & The Guardian
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