“Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wondering the world, meaning no harm.”
Fowler, Pyle and Phuong are the protagonists of this 1955 pre-Vietnam war era. The novel has received much attention due to its prediction of the outcome of the Vietnam War and subsequent American foreign policy since the 1950s.
We begin with Thomas Fowler and his ex-girlfriend Phuong awaiting the arrival of Alden Pyle, to whom she is now engaged. But he will never arrive – he has been murdered and Inspector Vigot of the Sûreté is investigating. If the body were that of a mere local Vietnamese or even a Frenchman he would let it go as just another casualty of the war with the Communists, but this time there is real pressure to discover who killed the supposedly neutral American. The novel is set in Saigon during the early 1950s between Fowler and Phuong’s first meeting with Pyle in September and the latter’s death the following February. The story is told as a series of interlocking flashbacks so that we eventually discover, when the timelines have converged, who Pyle really was, why he was killed, who betrayed who and the killer’s identity.
For all its fine qualities, one of the great strengths of this book is the cinematic flair with which it is structured and developed (neither of the subsequent cinema adaptations altered this). This helps Greene control the disparate themes and ideas percolating within to explore such themes as religious guilt, drug addiction, marital infidelity, sexual passion, the fall of European colonialism and America’s rise on the international stage through its propping up of foreign dictatorships in the name of anti-Communism. It was certainly highly topical then and it remains impressive that Greene go there so early – well ahead of America’s later direct involvement in the region, not to mention the descriptions of the ruin brought by the use of napalm, normally associated with the 1960s.
“Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader writers”
Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than two years. He has become a very jaded and cynical man. He meets Alden Pyle and finds him naïve. Throughout the book Fowler is often caught in lies and sometimes there may be speculation that he is lying to himself. Fowler’s relationship with Vietnamese woman Phuong often intensifies the conflict of the story, especially between Fowler and Pyle.
“Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?”
Alden Pyle is the “quiet American” of the title. A CIA agent working undercover, Pyle is thoughtful, soft-spoken, intellectual, serious, and idealistic. He comes from a privileged East Coast background. His father is a renowned professor of underwater erosion whose picture has appeared on the cover of Time magazine; his mother is well respected in their community. Pyle is a brilliant graduate of Harvard University. He has studied theories of government and society, and is particularly devoted to a scholar named York Harding. Harding’s theory is that neither Communism nor colonialism is the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a “Third Force”, usually a combination of traditions, works best. Pyle has read Harding’s numerous books many times and has adopted Harding’s thinking as his own. Pyle also strives to be a member of this “Third Force”. US military counter-insurgency expert Edward Lansdale, who was stationed in Vietnam 1953–1957, is sometimes cited as a model for Pyle’s character.
“I envied those who could believe in a God and I distrusted them. I felt they were keeping their courage up with a fable of the changeless and the permanent. Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the possibility of love dying.”
Phuong, Fowler’s lover at the beginning of the novel, is a beautiful young Vietnamese woman who stays with him for security and protection, and leaves him for the same reason. She is considered by Fowler as a lover to be taken for granted and by Pyle as someone to be protected. Pyle’s desire for Phuong was largely interpreted by critics to parallel his desire for a non-communist South Vietnam. Her character is never fully developed or revealed. She is never able to show her emotions, as her older sister makes decisions for her. She is named after, but not based on, a Vietnamese friend of Greene’s.
“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat.
Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. A pipe of opium, or the touch of a girl who might tell you she loves you. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.”
Vigot, a French inspector at the Sûreté, investigates Pyle’s death. He is a man anguished between doing his duty (pursuing Pyle’s death and questioning Fowler) and doing what is best for the country (letting the matter be unsolved). He and Fowler are oddly akin in some ways, both faintly cynical and weary of the world; hence their discussion of Blaise Pascal. But they are divided by the differences of their faith: Vigot is a Roman Catholic and Fowler an atheist.
“To be in love is to see yourself as someone else sees you, it is to be in love with the falsified and exalted image of yourself. In love we are incapable of honour – the courageous act is no more than playing a part to an audience of two.”
Without getting into specifics, there is more to Pyle than meets the eye, and even though I did not love this story as much as I had hoped to, it did pull together for me in the end. The protagonist learns that at some point, it becomes necessary to make a choice and become involved no matter how adamantly you believe in your own neutrality. Greene does write with a remarkable degree of restraint—in my opinion, his writing could even be said to be too restrained—which is how he packs a story with such complexity into a reasonable number of pages. The problem I had with it lay mostly in the fact that I did not experience much of a connection with any of the characters’ relationships. Though Pyle and Fowler essentially fight over a girl, it is a girl whom neither of them seems to really love, and the two men themselves don’t actually develop any quantifiable bond of friendship that would have otherwise made the story more affecting.