The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Posted: April 14, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The Quiet American is a vibrant novel about love, obsession, murder, redemption, politics, and war. Graham Green was an English writer and the protagonist (Thomas Fowler) is naturally English. The Quiet American was not originally well received in the US because it was perceived as demonizing the American presence in Vietnam. But today it is recognized for beautiful prose and different approach to structure than is typical of a novel.

The structure of the Quiet American is fascinating because it operates like a flashback, except that the majority of the novel is a flashback. Thus the present experiences are like a flashpresent if there were a term for this structure; the tense flashes from the past into the present rather than from the present into the past. This structure is fascinating because the audience already knows the plot, they know Pyle has been murdered, and it quickly becomes clear who is responsible for his death. We even know the motivation, but Graham has used his structure of time and setting in such a way that it feels confessionary.

The entire novel is told through Fowler’s memory. This technique is intriguing partially because fiction-writing books always warn developing writers to use the flashback sparingly. The feeling of movement is created by Greene’s usage of short sections that each comprises a memory. While the time of the novel elapses over a couple of years it feels like Fowlers’s musings occur in a single evening.

Each section is a complete scene. Either the cast of characters or the setting changed entirely in each section. On a structural level this helps keep the pace moving quickly, but it also gives a rich landscape for the novel. By giving us so many memories we witness an apartment, a government facility, a spiritual church, a rice patty, a watchtower, the home of a Vietnamese family, a city street, a restaurant, a scene of mass death, bombings, a club, an opium den, and a brothel (I may have forgotten a couple of places). This myriad of settings gives a realistic glimpse of the life of an expatriate during the Vietnam War.

The only scene that was repeated was the first and second to last chapters in which Pyle and Phuong meet outside his room the night of Pyle’s death. Even though this scene is repeated it is told differently so that it is more of a reminder of the first chapter than a repeat, and it is only a small section of the first chapter. The repetition of this section could mean that Phuong and their relationship is the most important part of the story for Fowler. This statement does not indicate that this novel is a love story; Fowler’s obsession with Phuong might be better categorized as a concern for his loss of stature and pride, and a fight over a woman who he considered as a possession rather than as a human he had deep sentimental connection with. But that is really for the reader to decide.

I highly recomend taking the time to read this beautifully written novel!

Graham Green as told by Wikipedia

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