#AW80Books – When half of a quiet American isn’t quite enough

I’ve been meaning to break my Graham Greene duck for a long time so I was delighted when The Quiet American was picked as my bookgroup’s book choice for last month. Also, it gives me the chance of extending my travels to Vietnam for our Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge. Alas, despite it being only a slim volume and an engaging read, events (a new job and a looming knitting design deadline) conspired to leave me having only read half by last Friday – oops! However, one long reading session in the bath later and I’ve now rectified the situation.

The novel is set in conflict-torn Vietnam, where war-weary British journalist, Fowler is stationed as a foreign correspondent, reporting on the political situation. Fowler seeks solace in opium and in the arms a young woman, Phuong, whose hopes and dreams of escaping to the West are complicated by the fact that Fowler has a wife in England. Fowler’s contentment is threatened when he meets Pyle, a fresh-faced idealistic American who is in Vietnam on a mission to spread democracy. Pyle falls in love with Phuong and wants to save her, marrying her and whisking her off to his home town in the states. Knowing he cannot offer Phuong such security, but unwilling to let her go to this naive and much younger man, Fowler is conflicted. The love triangle unfolds against a backdrop of violent bloodshed as conflict rips through the towns and villages all around.

While appearing to be an innocent abroad, Pyle’s unflinching idealism causes horrific consequences, and is enough to finally stir Fowler to take action, although whether his actions are fueled by love, conscience or both is left to the reader to decide. I really enjoyed the novel – the casual brutality of the writing powerfully evoked the numbness that must come from extended exposure to the the horrors of war, although the casual racism and mysogyny within the novel were hard to stomach at times.

Due to me not finishing the novel on time for my book group, I found a film of the book on Youtube to watch as a cheat. It starred Michael Caine as Fowler and was worth a watch if only for the scenes of rural Vietnam. Unfortunately, the fact that it played at slightly too fast a speed rendered the plot an unnatural urgency, and every character a mincing walk, and don’t even get me started on the comedy of Michael Caine’s dialogue delivered at 45 instead of 33 rpm! At least this clip this seems to be ok.