The Quiet American is one of those books that I would never have picked up on my own volition, but which, when I finally did read, made me wonder why I never did so in the first place. (It was a book club read, so thank you, book club!) It was calm but intense, subtle but loud in its message. And it’s a classic; can anyone go wrong with a classic?
Set in Vietnam during the French-Indochina wars in the 1940s, the titular character in The Quiet American is Alden Pyle, a young undercover agent from the US. Pyle, an idealist, meets Thomas Fowler, a jaded British correspondent in his fifties who’s been covering the war in Vietnam for a couple of years. When Fowler and Pyle first meet, Pyle’s seemingly out-of-place enthusiasm strikes Fowler, and the latter feels it was incumbent upon himself to keep an eye out for Pyle. However, when Pyle lays eyes on Phuong, Fowler’s twenty-year-old Vietnamese lover, he is smitten. Pyle does not conceal his feelings for Phuong, and Fowler, knowing he is unable to marry Phuong because his wife would not give him a divorce, can only grumble and resent.
Because Phuong dreams of a better life outside of Vietnam, she entertains Pyle. Fowler is shunted aside, until events force Pyle out of the picture, and Fowler’s actions are rendered suspect.
I enjoyed reading The Quiet American not principally for its historical value but because it was a love story and a mystery merged into one. The dynamics and motivations behind the relationships of Pyle, Fowler, and Phuong were interesting to read – Did Fowler really love Phuong, or was she just there for convenience? Did Phuong love Fowler? How about Pyle, was it really love at first sight? Fowler’s jealousy was palpable but his hands were tied, and he knew it, whereas Pyle was young, single, and American. Never has a divorce decree been so utterly desired and yet, so inconveniently placed out of reach.
The character of Phuong is one rather close to home; her situation is one that is not unfamiliar. And while she appears to be a secondary character because of her relatively minimal appearances, she is actually the prize, the goal, the crown that two men are vying for.
The mystery – the crime fiction part – also sustained my interest, because while the big whodunit question lingers in the end, not having been directly answered, the answer can be clearly gleaned from the motives of the characters.
Our book club discussed this back in July, which I really appreciated. So if you were to ask me if I would read another Greene book in the future, I’d definitely say yes.
"Suffering is not increased by numbers; one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel."
Book Details: Trade paperback, pre-loved copy
Read in June-July 2015