Graham Greene may be one of the godfathers of the modern international spy novel. But beyond entertainment, what allows his work to still be read today is the degree to which the personal and spiritual are tied into real-world political situations. Prophetic beyond perhaps even he imagined, Greene’s 1955 The Quiet American is the story of the United States government poking its nose into the political affairs of Vietnam—a situation already fraught with French occupancy. Many Americans were incensed upon the book’s publishing in the US, but Greene’s crystal ball vision has only come into sharper focus in the time since. His portrayal of a flawed individual involved in this circumstance only makes the affair more poignant.
The Quiet American is the story of an ageing British journalist, named Thomas Fowler, living in Saigon and covering the war between the French and Vietnamese. Despite being dedicated to his job, he is an opium user and keeps a young Vietnamese woman named Phuong as a lover unbeknownst to his wife in Britain. In the course of reporting, Fowler runs across a young American living in the city. An upper-class intellectual, Pyle seems innocent enough on the surface, but mysterious events soon begin taking shape, and when Pyle lays claim to Phuong, Fowler decides to use his credentials to dig deeper into the deepening political tension surrounding the man. What he finds does not make the decisions that come any easier.
Though the novel operates in the mode of international thriller, Greene keeps the story at a personal level. Fowler’s life is not easy, and his personal choices don’t help. The uncertainty of having a job, drug use, adultery, and the chaos of war hanging on the fringes serve to weight his shoulders more than the average man’s—even basking in his own dark mood at times. The novel’s conclusion nothing of the happy-go-lucky type, Fowler does find a measure of peace, but not without the addition of new problems. Greene’s ability to mix this personal with the political has rightfully kept the novel’s head above water in the half-century that has passed since its publishing and is ultimately the reason its political commentary impresses both the reader’s heart and brain.
Greene’s portrayal of Pyle is not exactly the aristocratic, Harvard-educated person the average American envisions. His motives set at a fundamentally ideological level, the reasons behind his existence in Vietnam exemplify the idea of morally gray. Fowler himself not the most virtuous of people, the two characters’ storylines intertwine and evolve in wholly realistic fashion. Knowing their exploits have not been idealized to manipulate reader’s emotions, the reading thus becomes a more engaging experience.
In the end, The Quiet American, though short, has everything a good novel should. Realistic main characters motivated by an equally realistic plot (especially given the history that has transpired since), all in lean, focused, well-written prose. That Greene is able to effectively mix personal values with commentary upon the political motivation of an ambitious government pushes the novel toward being one of the best of the 20th century. It is Vietnam War discussion before there was a war, and commentary on every major war in the Middle East that has occurred since, and worth a read.