Unfortunately, when reading books at university, often the texts chosen for you are either written in the eighteenth century (and are basically as intelligible as hieroglyphics), or are so long and tedious that you resort to summaries online just to be able to know what you’re talking about in class. However, this is not always the case. More often than not, a set text will surprise you, draw you in, and have you asking questions you never imagined you would ask yourself. That is the beauty of reading in my opinion – it expands your mind.
I found this exact experience with Graham Greene’s anti-war novel The Quiet American. The story follows protagonist Thomas Fowler, a pessimistic English journalist stationed in Vietnam during the French war in Vietnam during 1951-1954. He clashes with Alden Pyle, an opportunistic and naïve American, and throughout the story they fight for the woman they both love – a young, beautiful Vietnamese woman named Phuong.
As you may guess, the main conflict arises as they become competitors for Phuong’s affections; however, this is no story of a strong-minded heroine who chooses her mate based on compatibility. Prepare yourself for some cringeworthily feminine docility. Her thoughts are neither included nor needed. It is the men and her older sister who dictate her life. Her only purpose revolves around those who can offer her financial security and the protection afforded her through marriage.
Due to this, the story was at times frustrating. I yearned to reach through the pages and shake the girl awake. Yet, this isn’t a modern novel – it is written in the 50’s in Indochina where the violence and instability of war meant that life for everyone, especially women, was a constant battle for survival. During this heated era of social and political unrest, the roles of women differ vastly than they do from today, and marriage was the surest way to gain security in an uncertain existence.
Amongst the devastating realities of war-torn Indochina, Phuong becomes the romantic thread that ties the three characters together. She is twisted, snapped and rewoven around the two men until she weaves herself permanently around one. But no spoilers – you will have to read to know who she ends up with and more importantly, why.
But by far the most fascinating element of this novel is that it becomes increasingly obvious that Fowler, the narrator, is unreliable at recounting events and the people around him truthfully. You can’t help but question his motives. Are his actions based on his anti-war sentiments, or his desire to possess Phuong? You will find yourself thrown back-and-forth between liking Fowler, disliking Pyle and vice versa, a conundrum that perfectly highlights how prominent hypocrisy is in times of war and in instances of love.
When The Quiet American was first published, it received mixed reviews, and was criticised for being anti-American. Personally, I think it is anti-innocence. Not the charming, child-like innocence we admire, but the destructive, ignorant type; especially during the dangerous times of war where lives are constantly threatened by the decisions of those in power.
This novel is unquestionably one you will be dying to discuss (and/or vigorously debate) with someone once you’ve finished it. Therefore, I suggest you grab a friend and have them read The Quiet American with you, and thus prepare yourself for hours of calculation over who the good guy is, if there is a good guy at all, or if everyone is actually just terrible.
P.S. Graham Greene was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature, just in case you were still wondering if it is a worthwhile read. You can find it here.