Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Quiet American - clash of ideas and personalities

Looking at anything from an ideological point of view presents a limited picture. It slots everything into ideological categories and ignores the nuances that separate one thing from another despite belonging to the same ideological slot. On the other hand, realism (or cynicism) does the opposite. It helps you see across ideological differences and see things for what they are – good or bad – unaffected by their ideological affiliations.

France has attacked Vietnam and a war is raging in the latter. Pyle comes to Vietnam as worker of an American humanitarian organization which is promoting democracy with an imperial motive behind it. Fowler is a British reporter who is stationed in Vietnam. They meet in the country and become friends. Pyle is a starry-eyed idealist who believes that the West is spreading the cause of democracy and the cause is worth the cost it’s claiming (war, human lives and so on). On the other hand, Fowler sees it for what it is – he believes no cause, however great, is worth killing humans for.

Fowler’s marriage back in England is on rocks, thanks partly to the fact that he is in a live-in with a Vietnamese lady, who Pyle falls in love with and wants to marry. In The Quiet American Graham Greene has used the theatre of war to analyze the subtleties of human nature pitting two opposite personalities - Fowler and Pyle – against each other - who are not just opposite in their beliefs but also demographics – Flower is in mid forties who has had several relationships with women; Pyle is a 20 something virgin.

Graham Greene was one of those rare authors who enjoy popularity as well as critical acclaim. And, when I read The Quest American, my first Greene book, I understood that. The book is a thriller; yet it explores human nuances with delicacy, a path thrillers usually avoid treading. In other words, it has the thrill of a tightly-knit action-packed plot together with strokes of artistry. And a message that’s timeless.

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