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A slow moving but compelling romantic tragedy

  • May 1, 2010
THE QUIET AMERICAN is the tragically banal yet moving story of two white men living in Vietnam during the colonial war in French Indochina. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering the war, is world-weary and jaded, street smart, politically savvy and intelligently low key in the sense that he has learned to keep his head down to avoid attracting undue attention to himself and his activities, acclimated to the oriental culture, happy with a mediocre day to day existence, separated from his erstwhile wife in England and living with a local woman, Phuong, who is reputed to be one of the most beautiful women in Saigon.

Alden Pyle, newly posted to Saigon in some obscure bureaucratic capacity, is Fowler's very antithesis - brash and cocky with the arrogance and idealism of youth, naïve and uninformed, an intellectual theorist, egocentric, parochial and uninformed as to the Asian way of life, and brimful of a typical American attitude that looks down with unabashed disdain at cultures other than their own. He also happens to be hopelessly in love with Phuong whom he met when they were attending a soirée at the local Continental Hotel.

THE QUIET AMERICAN tells the story of the evolution of the love-like-hate-admire-ignore relationships that evolve in the Fowler-Pyle-Phuong triangle as Pyle hamhandedly courts Phuong and attempts to force her into a choice between himself and Fowler. When Pyle is murdered, Vigot, a French inspector at the Sûreté, investigates the death and makes it quite clear that he suspects Fowler is the killer.

Like a Shakespearean tragedy, THE QUIET AMERICAN is a rather blood-soaked tale that focuses its primary attention on ideas, characters and relationships. The wartime events in southeast Asia drive the story, to be sure, but ultimately, the tragedy ends on an unresolved "life goes on" note with Fowler learning that his wife has offered him a divorce and that he and Phuong can resume their lives without the clutter of Pyle's further attentions.

It is interesting to observe that, unlikely Pyle's and Fowler's exquisitely detailed personalities, Phuong remains ambiguous, fuzzy and ultimately unrevealed. Undoubtedly, this is Greene's nod in the direction of the western world's perception of the inscrutability of the Eastern mind.

On one level, THE QUIET AMERICAN is a workmanlike and enjoyable tale of wartime adventure, colonialism, murder and romance. But, on a deeper level, it is also obvious that THE QUIET AMERICAN is a heartfelt critique of American imperialism and their penchant for violently imposing their vision of democracy and an assumed superior western way of life on cultures other than their own. Indeed, in 1956 when it was first published, THE QUIET AMERICAN was loudly condemned as being anti-American. It has been suggested that American readers were particularly galled to listen to the criticisms largely being voiced through the mouth of a snobbish and opinionated middle class Englishman like Thomas Fowler.

In this era of continuing difficulties in the Middle East, Americans would be well-advised to consider reading this slow moving yet oddly compelling tragedy that had so much to say about American politics.

Paul Weiss

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Quick Tip by . December 22, 2010
In this era of continuing difficulties in the Middle East, Americans would be well-advised to consider reading this slow moving yet oddly compelling tragedy that had so much to say about American politics.
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Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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