August 11, 2008

The Quiet American: Don't believe the unreliable narrator

Graham Greene's novel about the French war in Vietnam is often seen as a great anti-Western, anti-American, anti-Colonialist tract aiming straight, and presciently, at the disaster of US policy in Indo-China twenty years after the book is set. Such an interpretation is an error. The novel is narrated by a British journalist dispatched by his paper to IndoChina. The journalist is a character by the name of Fowler. He spends most of his time with two other characters- and the novel is an intricate game- political and sexual- between these three characters. One is an American attache at the embassy- secretly the inspirer of political movements in Vietnam- Pyle. The third is the woman that both Pyle and Fowler, in their own ways, love- Phuong- a Vietnamese who depends totally on the two Western men for her livelihood and who appears throughout as passive rather than active.

The impression that Fowler wants to create is of two stereotypes. He is the old, cautious European- bred in cynicism and self contempt. He knows the follies of the world, understands no theories work and is tolerant of the East and its differences from the West. Pyle on the other hand is an ignorant American blunderer. Quick out of university, straight from his ivy league classes to real world politics, Pyle blunders around so fixed on his current books that he can't see what is front of his eyes. Pyle is a classic theorist in a world of human beings- where nothing fits into his boxes but his own aspirations. Pyle ruins Vietnam in Fowler's view because he fits it into his American anger with the suffering of the non-democratic masses. Fowler is dispassionate- he is not as he says 'engage'.

But that mask does slip and Greene lets us see that Fowler's world is not entirely accurate. For a start Fowler does not describe himself well- he is engage- he is involved deeply with Vietnam and his dispassionate stance conceals a real passion, fear and love for the people of the land. Furthermore his stance of dispassionate inquiry leads him to exagerrate the distinctions between Europe and the East. We see this most vividly in his treatment of Phuong. Whereas Pyle's ambition of taking her to America- an ambition by the way that is sketched out most by Fowler and not by Pyle- is unrealistic- Fowler's view that she should become his concubine with little security when he next falls in love (as he has a habit of doing) is more disrespectful. He uses his difference from her to create the illusion that it doesn't matter that he has made her a discardable mistress. He exaggerates the degree to which she is purely passive and he objectifies her as an embodiment of her nation- rather than as a person. Chinua Achebe's wonderful line that Conrad sought to make Africa the drama of a white man's soul is applicable to Fowler's attitude to the East.

As soon as we see that we should reevaluate Fowler, we also begin to reevaluate Pyle. There is truth in Fowler's view of Pyle- there is truth in Fowler's assertion that Pyle is a nice man with no empathy or understanding of the world he lives in. And yet Pyle is willing to offer that world a respect that Fowler will not offer it- precisely because Pyle beleives that the Vietnamese are Americans struggling to be free (even though they aren't) he accords them the respect of thinking them capable of freedom- a freedom that Fowler sees as Western. This contrast is a contrast between different forms of orientalism. The one which sees the East as just 'us' but waiting to be freed by 'us' and the other which sees it as so different that slavery is a natural condition. Both perspectives are possibly natural within the arena that Pyle and Fowler live in- an expatriate community of diplomats and journalists that have little contact with the outside world especially the indigenous world, save for its prostitutes and its politicians.

Greene's novel therefore far from being an exploration of the differences between Europe and America is really an exploration of the way that two common western attitudes to the East fail to understand the reality of a country like Indo China or Vietnam. Greene wants us to see that both Fowler and Pyle share an orientalism that makes the East part of a western argument about how different it is, just as they make Phuong an emblem in their strife with each other. Orientalism ties into sexism in a lethal combination that reminds one that whenever you read a book, it is vital not to trust the author.


Don Francisco said...

Your interpretation of the book is one the the recent film is quite sympathetic to (I read the book years ago so it's not that fresh in my mind). I always felt that Phuong's part was a bit underwritten - you get the allegorical idea of her representing Vietnam or the Orient - but she's hard to warm to as a character. I don't know how you would make her better though. Otherwise it's possibly my favourite book by Greene.