I'm reprising this review from -- amazingly enough -- 2008 -- have I really been at this for such a long time? I was going to save it for a bit later in the month, but as Simon, who read it for his Greene for Gran month, didn't get on too well with it, I'm bringing it forward to offer an alternative view. So this is what I said five years ago.
Does anybody read Graham Greene any more? I remember reading and enjoying Brighton Rock when I was about eighteen -- I can now picture myself sitting with the book on a train quite clearly but not much about its contents. But this one having been the other unread book on my alphabetical list, I procured it from the library a couple of days ago. It had to be rescued from what they call the dungeon, and the copy does look very sad and unloved. But I am happy to tell you that I liked it very much indeed.
I saw the film, which has Michael Caine in it, a few years ago, and discovered on reading that that was a surprisingly good and true version of the novel. Caine was excellent as Thomas Fowler, the novel's narrator, an aging journalist living in wartime Vietnam. Cynical, detached, addicted to opium, a serial womaniser separated from his wife, Fowler is living with Phuong, a beautiful young Vietnamese girl who has become the whole focus of his life. The 'quiet American' is Alden Pyle, a young man newly arrived and full of idealistic ideas, all derived from his reading, about how to solve the conflict in the country. Pyle rapidly falls deeply and romantically in love with Phuong, and offers her marriage and security, neither of which Fowler is able to do. Initially enraged, Fowler at last appears to accept Phuong's decision to move in with Pyle. Meanwhile, though, Fowler has discovered that Pyle is involved with a rebel group who engage in sporadic and increasingly destructive bombing raids on the city, using plastic explosive supplied to them by Pyle. Fowler's latent humanitarian sympathies and political rationality are engaged, and he makes a decision which will have huge repercussions for everyone involved.
It's hard to fault this novel I believe. The book is beautifully constructed -- beginning with the death of Pyle, it moves backwards and forwards through time, each move filling in a little more detail so that it is not until the end that we know the full facts behind this event. Greene's prose is so readable, though, as Evelyn Waugh observed, it is "not a specifically literary style at all. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry, and of independent life". The view of the war, and of the American's involvement in it, seems rather depressingly relevant today, 53 years after publication.
But above all for me it was the characters -- the innocent, idealistic Pyle, beautiful Phuong, whose thoughts and feelings remain as mysterious to the reader as they do to Fowler, and above all Fowler himself -- probably to some extent a self-portrait -- whose surface cynicism covers a deeply passionate nature and an increasingly humanitarian political conscience. His final decision to take action is not made lightly, and it is clear that the rest of his life will be spent in agonising uncertainty about the true reasons behind it.