There’s no doubt that we live in a world ridden with conflict. It’s there between nations, between communities and religions. We all have certain views about every issue, and it’s all based on our experiences as well as what we hear and read. In short, none of us ever really has the full story, and believe in our own illusions. This is exactly the theme handled in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, The Quiet American.
The Quiet American in the title refers to Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent. Pyle is young, idealistic and rather naïve. His understanding of international politics is based on books written by another author, whose opinions he blindly subscribes too. Hmm, wonder who that sounds like? Oh wait, nearly everyone these days! On the other hand, we have seasoned British journalist, Thomas Fowler, who is pretty much the opposite of Pyle. The one thing that binds them is their common interest in Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman who is looking for a way to secure her future.
The Quiet American is not an easy read. Pyle has been a golden boy, with a good childhood and education, but his unwavering faith in the idea of the Third Force makes him blind to the atrocities committed in its name, including genocide. The interference of the US government in South East Asian affairs under the guise of ‘fixing them’ causes more harm than good, and this has made the book a source of controversy. With the events in Syria these days, this book actually makes you think a lot about the destruction this ‘fix-it’ attitude is causing.
The two main characters are very well-developed and the conversations between them are the soul of the story. The woman, Phuong, is just touched upon, and is another instrument in the conflict between the two men. Greene’s writing is powerful and can be uneasy at times as it touches upon some of our very foundational beliefs. But if a book doesn’t make you think, then what good is it, right?