Is history repeating itself?“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.” The speaker is Fowler, an English journalist and the narrator of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” set half a century ago in Vietnam.
The high-minded trouble-maker is the title character, an earnest young idealist named Pyle who, equipped with some inspiring theories he read in a book, has come to Vietnam to promote democracy and save the Vietnamese people from communism on the one hand and from corruption on the other.
What is needed, Pyle has concluded, is to identify and support a “third force.”
In 1950s Vietnam there is no shortage of candidates for such a role. As French colonial power crumbles before a communist guerrilla insurgency, local warlords, bandit gangs and even a religious sect all scrap for shares of the spoils.
Pyle is evidently acting on behalf of the United States government, but as France is still nominally the responsible power, he must operate clandestinely.
He throws himself into his assignment with such eager-beaver abandon that Fowler concludes that Pyle is probably a virgin ― literally, metaphorically, or both.
As the situation descends into bloodshed, the appalled Fowler knows he must take action.
But are his own motives as innocent as Pyle’s, considering that the American has robbed Fowler of his Vietnamese mistress?
The book is half a century old, yet as fresh as today’s headlines. We see again in Iraq the American enthusiasm for reshaping another nation for its own good. We see Old World cynicism and weariness counterposed against New World idealism and recklessness.
But easy answers escape us. Is it better to act against evil, and perhaps do further evil, or to stand back disinterestedly and watch evil unfold?
Unfortunately, there are few heroes in life and even fewer in Graham Greene’s fiction.
The Quiet American
by Hal Piper