The Quiet American, Graham Greene, The Viking Press, 1956, 180 pp
As I read through the years of 20th century literature in My Big Fat Reading Project, The Quiet American will turn out to be the first of countless Vietnam novels. It is not to be confused with a bestseller from 1959, The Ugly American, though they share the themes of arrogant Americans and a failure to understand Vietnamese culture. Of course that is a common failure of any country that practices imperialism.
Graham Greene has created one of his typical disillusioned cynics; in this case Thomas Fowler, a British newspaper correspondent with a wife back in England, a Vietnamese mistress and an opium habit. When Alden Pyle, the ironically eponymous "quiet American" enters the scene in Saigon and noisily steals Fowler's mistress, he creates a love triangle which also becomes political.
In an elegantly structured novel and rich but economical prose, Greene explicates the complex scene in 1950s Vietnam, as the French fight a losing war against the communist Viet Minh, complicated by various Vietnamese political factions and the recently arrived American's plans to create a "Third Force", designed to be anti-French, anticommunist and pro-American. Alden Pyle turns up dead and Thomas Fowler has to solve the murder for his own protection and peace of mind.
What I found most intriguing is that while Greene is clearly railing against the destructive "innocence' of Americans, by which he really means ignorance, no single character comes off as innocent in the end.
(The Quiet American is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)