The Quiet American – Quietly Disturbing

Just finished reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955). It’s set in the decade before American military involvement in French Indochina (Vietnam). Lots to ponder – colonialism, war, democracy, political intervention, love, innocence. The usual bag then.

Phuong, the beautiful Vietnamese lover of Englishmen Thomas Fowler and the object of fantasy for youthful American contender Alden Pyle, seems to form the core of the story without saying very much for herself. In many ways the serene opposite of crazed Ma Hla May of Burmese Days, who I wrote about at length, nor the virginal innocence of Jewel in Lord Jim. Almost altogether consciousness-free, Phuong is all things to all people. The jealous war Fowler and Pyle fight over her therefore epitomises the war over the heart and soul of Indochina. To the American ideologue, they are a childlike people who he can barely see or hear. Nor does he need to see or hear them, for he knows everything about the country from a book he once read. To him, the Vietnamese must have democracy engineered for them, by whatever means necessary (enter the ominous Third Force). To the aging reporter Fowler, in contrast, who is determined to simply report the war rather than take sides, it is the human cost only which can have any meaning. That is not necessarily Fowler’s altruism shining through though – it’s perhaps paradoxically his extreme selfishness in evidence, Greene suggests. Fowler can’t bear to see the misery of others because it disturbs his own peace and happiness.

Fowler mocks, silently, the fact that his assistant Dominguez cannot bring himself to hurt any living creature, not even to swot a mosquito. And yet the atheistic reporter knows it cannot be Dominguez’s Christian faith which renders him so pacifist, for wars are fought and people killed in the name of Christianity all the time. Even Fowler’s devoutly Catholic wife at home cuts him liberally with words; the wounds are real and felt keenly, thousands of miles away. So perhaps it’s a deeper spiritualism in Dominguez, something “Asian”. Maybe he has Buddhist roots, Fowler wonders. (If there is a message about non-violence here it’s certainly very subtle.) I’m reminded of Cemil Aydin’s recent The Politics of Anti-Westernism, which provides quite a good context for how the idea of “Asianism” developed in Asia, and particularly Japan, after the turn of the twentieth century. His argument there is that phenomena such as pan-Asianism and pan-Islamism grew out of the age of high imperialism (c. 1884-1914), when the rhetoric of Western liberalism was shown to be a sham. The “East” did not really see itself as the “East”, in opposition to the “West”, until the latter forced the issue with their morally bankrupt activities. Westerners proclaimed their Christian, civilizational superiority but seemingly had no problems colonizing, sometimes brutally, the brown and yellow peoples of the world. The idea of the ‘yellow peril’ is contexualised particularly well by Aydin. The ‘yellow’ people certainly felt the slur, and in return rethought an universal modernity that didn’t exclude them: the Western model with a nod towards Eastern spirituality essentially. It’s an interesting background to The Quiet American anyway but I’ve digressed wildly now.

There’s not too much comment on Communism that moves beyond the struggle already epitomised by Fowler and Pyle. It’s implied throughout that the Vietminh are not so terrifying or inhuman in their actions when one considers that Americans will go to similar lengths in the service of some other hegemonic idea. (The effects of Agent Orange, for instance, continue to plague generations of Vietnamese people, causing cancers, disabilities, and monstrous birth deformities.) It’s this point that eventually pushes Fowler to become “engaged”, to take a side, just as he is pushed to fight in his own perverse way to keep Phuong. Pyle, he sees, will ship her off to America to become some kind of soulless Stepford wife that lunches at the country-club with his mother. Fowler believes that the Vietminh actually care about the ordinary people because they treat each man like a true man, while the Americans can only talk hot air about saving the souls of the Vietnamese and securing their right to be ‘individuals’. Modern analogies in abundance, half a century on, and none of them particularly flattering towards America or its interventionist allies preaching freedom, democracy, and all that.

Although, oddly, that didn’t stop George W. Bush conjuring up Greene and Alden Pyle in defence of America’s war in Iraq back in 2007. In its entirety it’s a pretty lengthy verdict from a Bushian perspective of America’s role in shaping Asia in the 20th century, particularly through its tumultuous relationship with Japan. Does GWB cut a similar figure to the bumbling and yet terrifying idealist Pyle? According to the director of the newest film adaptation (2002), Alden Pyle is alive and well: the White House is full of them. Check out Counterpunch on this interesting aspect.

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