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SECOND THOUGHTS – THE HINDU
The Unquiet Englishman
BY NAVTEJ SARNA

The Quiet American throws light on Graham Greene's personal life and is a vivid demonstration of his affirmed anti-Americanism.

An early Saturday morning walk past the old gun, rusting on a cliff for half a century or more, pointing at some imaginary target far over the foaming waves with the gunner's seat still turned to a convenient angle, puts me, for no obvious reason, in a mood to read Graham Greene. To read at a stretch some strangely detached and yet very intricately plotted story of men in remote lost corners of the world, men with an unresolved past picking their way across a moral landscape infested with the landmines of betrayal and jealousy, alienated men working out their own private deals with God, their hard-boiled cynicism disguising some sentimental core. A story about some drink-driven foreign correspondent or death-seeking traveller or whimsical spy in a pastel suit whose only obvious loyalty is to the cocktail hour.

The Quiet American seems to push itself out towards my hand. Partly because I read somewhere recently that Pico Iyer regards it as a sort of private Bible (and I will try not to reproduce his reasons here) and partly because the copy I possess is a very readable edition brought out for the Greene Centennial in 2004, printed on thick creamy paper, with an attractive rough, almost unfinished edge. Both a tortured love entanglement and prescient political history, the novel successfully documented the anti-colonialist impulse and the beginnings of the Vietnam War, to the point that it became essential reading during the War itself, with foreign correspondents gifting copies to each other.

The book's story unfolds like an accordion in the hands of a master: A cynical, opium smoking British journalist, Fowler, lives in an adulterous liaison with a beautiful local girl, Phuong in Saigon of the early fifties, when the French were unsuccessfully fighting Ho Chi Minh. Pyle, a younger American, idealistic and dangerously innocent, bumbles onto the scene; he also falls in love with Phoung and takes her away from Fowler, though in a strangely honourable way. Fowler is the hardened professional, refusing to take sides; he is, as he says, a reporter, not a leader writer. Pyle, on the other hand is well-intentioned but destructive in his design, finally murderous. Phoung is a deliberately underdeveloped character, a beautiful metaphor of the mysterious east, exploited by the foreigners and yet somehow out of reach, never quite understood. She was “the hiss of steam, the clink of a cup, she was a certain hour of the night and the promise of rest.” The fast-paced and tight plot, bolstered by evocative and moody descriptions, plays out against several themes — the old colonialism and the new American way, religion, love, desire and guilt.

To say more on the actual story may spoil it for those who have not yet read it. Better instead to focus on two surrounding aspects. First, the impact of Greene's personal life on the novel: In 1947, Greene had separated from his long suffering wife Vivien, though they would remain married till his death in 1991. While living with his mistress Dorothy Glover, he had also begun an affair with a wealthy married woman, Catherine Walston (the ‘C' to whom The End of the Affair is dedicated) who would remain the grand passion of his life. He was, however, unable to persuade her to leave her husband. Their meetings became limited and more difficult and that was at least one of the reasons why Greene travelled to Malaya and Indo-China and tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to forget his personal torment by throwing himself in danger's way and seeking relief in opium. Much of this is reflected in Fowler's life — a mirror for many of Greene's own beliefs and traits — in the book. His last farewell to Vivien, when she watched him walk away from the house, looking back but not waving, is also one of the memories that Fowler sifts through: “My wife's face at a window when I came home to say goodbye for the last time.” Even the letter that Fowler writes to his wife in England seeking divorce so that he can marry Phuong could be one that Greene himself wrote to Vivien and the wife's response is one that he may have imagined to be Vivien's.

Saigon captivated Greene: “ The spell was first cast… by the tall elegant girls in white silk trousers, by the pewter evening light on flat paddy fields, where the water-buffaloes trudged fetlock-deep with a slow primeval gait… the Chinese gambling houses in Cholon, above all by that feeling of exhilaration that a measure of danger brings.” He haunted the Majestic and Continental hotels on the rue Catinat with its cafes and bars where much of the book's action happens. He visited the brothels and opium dens, travelled across the war-torn country with French patrols, went on bombing raids, kept detailed notes in his journal and put it all in the book, which makes The Quiet American more based on direct reportage than many of his other works.

The other aspect is the book's avowed anti-Americanism perhaps demonstrated most vividly by the fact that in 1956, the Soviet newspaper Pravda gratefully hailed, across five columns, the novel as a major event in British literary history that demonstrated the naïve and murderous impact of America's anti-Communism. (This was in turn ridiculed by Newsweek under the headline “When Greene is Red”). Greene, belonging to the British elite, had a sentimental, almost paternalistic attachment to the so-called Third World and resented the increasing and inevitable American presence, regarding it as naïve and uncultured. He nurtured nostalgia, according to Anthony Burgess, “for the Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, John Buchan hero pursuing the cause of British decency in some fever-ridden outpost.” His visceral anger at what he regarded as dangerous American innocence in stepping into settings without understanding them, as well as his dislike for American traits and culture, runs through the book like a caustic gash. “Innocence,” says Fowler in the book “is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” He is tired of “the whole pack of them with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their too wide cars and their not quite latest guns.” He didn't want Pyle to be messing around Indo-China supplying explosives that ended up killing innocents in the name of democracy; rather he wanted to see him “reading the Sunday supplements at home and following baseball… safe with a standardized American girl who subscribed to a Book Club.” Naturally, such criticism was not well received in the US and Greene's attitude was ascribed to personal pique at not having been given a visa because of a few weeks of membership in the Communist Party in 1922. The New Yorker, while mocking Greene, accidentally, and unkindly, touched off another theory: That Pyle, the American was actually a thinly disguised Englishman — “a naïve chap who speaks bad French, eats tasteless food and is only accidentally and episodically heterosexual.”

Come to think of it, Pyle's insistence on fairness, honour, the right thing and “playing it straight” does sound more British public school than anything else. Isn't playing it straight a cricketing phrase, after all?

navtej.sarna@gmail.com