It seems now that Graham Greene's The Quiet American had a kind of prescience. I'm told it wasn't very popular in America, because it made us seem like meddlers and dilettantes in world affairs, but if Aldon Pyle, the "Quiet American" of the title is meant as a stand-in for the nation as a whole, it couldn't be much more accurate. Pyle is an American in Vietnam before the war, when it was a French problem, and he arrives with no more knowledge than his textbooks have given him, but with an unwavering certainty that the way to solve the "Vietnam problem" is to fund a third force of rebels who will destabilize the conflict between French colonialists and Communists. Greene wrote about Pyle in 1955, and a decade later, there we were, meddling and dilettanting on a much more tragic scale.
The narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler, is classically Greene: a cynic, a realist, and an atheist. He and Pyle become fond of each other, but Fowler sees Pyle for what he is, a man who has "punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream." Fowler, a journalist, holds to a fierce neutrality:
'You can rule me out,' I said. 'I'm not involved,' I repeated. It had been an article of my creed. The human condition being what it was, let them fight, let them love, let them murder, I would not be involved. My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action--even an opinion is a kind of action.
Fowler suffers from the same delusion as Nick Carraway, a delusion that Heisenberg destroyed in the twenties, the belief that you can be a mere observer, and not affect what happens around you. Greene's books are always true to their novelistic staging, and when Fowler insists that he is "not involved," we can be assured that by the end of the novel he will be very involved indeed. In this case, what drags Fowler into involvement is Phuong, a beautiful Vietnamese woman who has been Fowler's lover for a long time, and with whom Pyle falls deeply in love. Like a boy scout, Pyle insists on taking Phuong from Fowler in the honorable way, even going so far as being air-dropped into a battle zone to find Fowler and ask his permission. Fowler, older and married, knows that he cannot compete with Pyle, who will bring Phuong to the United States, and yet his fondness for Pyle never wavers.
Like Fowler, we like Pyle, though he is kind of a genial monster. To his surprise but not our own, the rebels he has armed kill dozens of innocent civilians. On a political level, he ought to have served as a stark warning against mucking around in world affairs where our idealism counts for very little--a lesson you might argue we seem not to have learned. On a literary level, he's a powerful portrait of misguided rectitude, and a sour criticism of modern virtue. The Quiet American is Greene at his most cynical and least redemptive, but perhaps his most troubling.