The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Our book group read and discussed The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, last week. I had read it before, but honestly remembered very little, which isn’t a good sign. Enjoyed it second time around. Excellent writing, interesting context (the Vietnam War), and great war-weary philosophizing in that Hemingway-Camus empty heavens existential tone that so many writers of those generations had. But the book suffers from terrible characterization of Phuong, and the ridiculous romanticisation of the exotic foreign country as backdrop.

I found the ending very interesting the more I though about it. I found a PDF version, and here is the ending (with a few lines cut out).

You haven’t opened your telegram,” Phuong said. “No, I’d forgotten that too. I don’t
want to think about work tonight. And it’s too late to file anything now. Tell me more
about the film.”
“Well, her lover tried to rescue her from prison. He smuggled in boy’s clothes and a man’s
cap like the one the gaoler wore, but just as she was passing the gate all her hair fell down
and they called out ‘Une aristocrate, une aristocrate.’ I think that was a mistake in the
story. They ought to have let her escape. Then they would both have made a lot of money
with his song and they would have gone abroad to America-or England,” she added with
what she thought was cunning.
“I’d better read the telegram,” I said. “I hope to God I don’t have to go north tomorrow. I
want to be quiet with you.”
She loosed the envelope from among the pots of cream and gave it to me. I opened it and
read: “Have thought over your letter again stop am acting irrationally as you hoped stop
have told my lawyer start divorce proceedings grounds desertion stop God bless you
affectionately Helen.”
“Do you have to go?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t have to go. I’ll read it to you. Here’s your happy ending.”
She jumped from the bed.
“But it is wonderful. I must go and tell my sister. She’ll be so
pleased. I will say to her, ‘Do you know who I am? I am the second Mrs. Fowlaire.’ “

Opposite me in the bookcase The Role of the West stood out like a cabinet portrait of a
young man with a crew-cut and a black dog at his heels. He could harm no one any more.
I said to Phuong, “Do you miss him much?”
Strange how even now, even to her, it was impossible to use his first name.

I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the
soda-fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but
how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.

I noticed how literary this is: Phuong suggests an ending for the film, and Greene then has his character Fowler decide that he too has to end the novel, by reading the telegram. The contents are the analogue of Phuong’s rewrite of the tragic chopping off of the head… Fowler gets his divorce, and he and Phuong will live happily and travel the world and see the sights. When I first read it, and we talked about it in the book club, we remarked how odd this ending seemed. Was anyone under the illusion there was going to be a happy ending with Fowler and Phuong? More careful reading suggests Greene couldn’t resist being quite explicit about how this ending is a literary ending: the happy telegram is not the ending; the ending is the author deciding to end the novel. The content of the ending is irrelevant, he seems to be saying, to understanding the novel. He may as well have ended by Fowler holding the telegram and musing to himself, “I wonder what Graham Greene will have the telegram say?”

The “portrait of the young man” bit, in the context of the “bookcase” works quite deliberately in communicating this final message of Greene’s I suppose. And one could read “He could harm no one any more” as “The novel ended, this happy telegram ending has nothing to do with it any more.”

A last, unrelated thought. In the book, it is Fowler who calls Pyle a quiet American, and then Vigot replies that he is “a very quiet American” with the implication that Pyle is dead. But then in subsequent pages, narrator Fowler twice remarks that Vigot called Pyle a quiet American. mistake by Greene? Or deliberate unreliable narrator tip-off?

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
This entry was posted in Book and film reviews. Bookmark the permalink.