Graham Greene’s The Quiet American isn’t exactly what I meant when I said I’d do A Country a Month research. I do like to read fiction about the places I’ll be visiting, but I like it to be written by people from those places. It’s hard finding history books at CPS about Asia that aren’t written by white scholars from Britain and its former colonies, but at least the library has more options when it comes to fiction.
But Greene’s novel was one of the ones on my shelf that needed reading, so I picked it up. And it was really good! It’s set during the French part of Vietnam’s decades-long war on its own soil against foreigners and sometimes against itself. Greene is concerned, as many mid-century novelists are, with the changing nature of power as it shifts from Britain to the United States. He’s also concerned with the many ways people can betray one another, and whether it is worth trying to be a good person in a war zone, and how love and friendship might fit in all this.
Greene’s protagonist, Fowler, is a middle-aged journalist prone to philosophizing about what Vietnam means, what the Vietnamese are like, what the French are like, what the Americans are like. So we see everything through his eyes, and through the eyes of a 1955 writer, and thus everything has that special glow of “benevolent” racism–the kind that sees nonwhites as childlike and just looking for guidance from wise Westerners. Greene does complicate this somewhat, alternately acknowledging and disregarding his girlfriend Phuong’s agency and intelligence, and speaking on equal terms with the man who reveals the nefarious plans of the “third way” group. He even seems to realize that Vietnam isn’t just a staging ground for Western political dreams or an escape route for disillusioned journalists. There’s real affection for the country and its inhabitants here, from the dedication at the front made out to friends living in Saigon, right through the story as Fowler travels the length of the country.
It’s a well-written story, and a good meditation on power, innocence, and betrayal. But The Quiet American is not a good way to learn about Vietnam as the Vietnamese live it or see it. So, moving on! Any suggestions?