Re-reading Greene

Mai Huyen Chi

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Mai Huyen Chi. Photograph : Huyen Trinh

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THE QUIET AMERICAN

Graham Greene

Vintage: 2004

 

The first time I read The Quiet American a thrill ran through me. Lines from the book sang in my head: “Loneliness lay in my bed and I took loneliness into my arms at night … Silence like a plant put out tendrils: it seemed to grow under the door and spread its leaves in the room where I stood.” Then there were sentences drenched in irony, too many to remember. Graham Greene’s classic was musical and sensuous.

Written in 1955, ten years before the United States formally declared its involvement in the war in Vietnam, The Quiet American was praised for its prophetic power, foreseeing US foreign policy in Vietnam and its inevitable consequences. Adapted for the screen twice, in 1958 and 2002, it is renowned as a study of American idealism gone wrong. So much so that in an article discussing Barack Obama’s foreign policy, in November 2009, the Economist referenced the novel: “Or is he merely a presidential version of Alden Pyle, Graham Greene’s idealistic, clever Quiet American who wants to change the world, but underestimates how bad the world is — and ends up causing harm?”

The novel questions the growing involvement of the United States in Vietnam in the 1950s through the portrayal of a love triangle between a cynical British foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler; an idealistic American undercover agent, Alden Pyle; and a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, whose profession is never spelled out but appears to be escorting.

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