The Quiet American

For anyone who’s read Graham Greene before, what I’m going to say should come as no surprise at all, but what a writer! I’ve just finished my first trip into his world, via Jeonju University library’s copy of The Quiet American.

I saw the movie last year at the Jeonju International Film Festival, I believe it was, and what a movie that was. I imagined that perhaps it had even outstripped the original book, when I saw it, for all the depth of character and the depth of political and cultural texture.

But the book is even more powerful than the movie. Living in the mind of Thomas Fowler, watching what Pyle does in Vietnam, it is all of it painful when one knows what is to come a couple of decades later. Greene’s critique is not just of a man, or of a place, but of a way of thinking—one that is directly relevant now, where Americans are dealing with the General Thés of the world more than ever.

In fact, I think any outsourcing of military/political work should be referred to as giving the job to General Thé. So should any work in which one group of locals inflict mass suffering on others, or any case where American idealism and doctrine gets in the way of an observation of facts and experiences.

Why did Osama bin Laden escape? General Thé let him go. Why is Darfur a non-news issue around the world? Because General Thé is not a news priority. General Thé is not just a phenomenon, it’s a whole approach to the world of international politics and news.

Of course, there’s much more in the book than just this. I found in it the roots of a lot of my understanding of intercultural relationships, and it carries within it the stereotype of a relationship between a Western man and an “Oriental” woman, meaning a woman of Asian culture from a time before Western culture had completely saturated the Eastern one. Of course, what one sees between foreigners and Koreans is nothing like this, and the stereotype was already kind of destabilized before I’d even hit my twenties, in Canada, but seeing it now, clear and strange in the “mysteriousness” of the Oriental woman and the unsentimentality of the expatriate man, it looks odd to me, but interesting as a kind of historical curio.

It seems to me that relationships across cultures now are a fair bit easier; not easy, necessarily, but easier. We share now a kind of global metaculture—not quite a culture, but particles of a culture, the glue of a culture, technologies and attitudes and sort of conventions of being. It’s not precisely because the world has been modernized or Westernized, though that has happened. It’s also because, I think, to the degree that people are “modernized”, they are deculturated. This is not to say they have no culture, but that the absoluteness of any given statement attributable to a culture carries ever so slightly less force now, for those who are modernized. People are able to say, “In my culture, we believe so-and-so,” rather than simply, “So-snd-so is true.” As soon as this kind of instability is introduced, the potential for resolving disagreements arises—though, of course, the potential also arises, even within a single culture, for people to have even more to fight over. It’s as if, for some people, having lost the absoluteness of culture is something that is bad; they feel it keenly as a loss, and wish the world would reinstate Christendom, would go back to being (supposedly) uniform in beliefs and values within a given culture, and so on.

In fact, what has arisen is not a new set of schisms, but merely a new way of talking about differences. The possibility of difference is what has popped up into our world’s metaculture. And for every ten people who are simply using this as a new way to say that others are wrong, I think there are two or three people who are using it to say to themselves and others, “Oh, now isn’t that interesting? I never thought of approaching that universal human problem in that way before.” The problem is that the latter approach requires thought, while the former doesn’t.

Those who are willing to jump on an ideological bandwagon—whether it’s idealistically hawkish militarism, fanatical religiosity, anti-colonialism, or any other bandwagon—are all the enemies of the world. Most people don’t know it, of course, and most people will never listen to you tell them that, either. Perhaps Greene, in his obvious wisdom, discovered that the best approach was to voice this observation in novels, whisper it through the body of the plot of a rather fascinating novel.

Whatever. I know I shall return to Greene, and soon. (And happily, the library where I work has a near-complete collection of his novels.)

5 thoughts on “The Quiet American

  1. A three-volume biography of Graham Greene (the first volume was published 15 years ago) has just been completed. It was reviewed by Ruth Franklin in the October 4th issue of the New Yorker and is available online (see God in the Details). It’s funny that you mention Graham Greene because I just got finished reading that review yesterday.

  2. I bought a photocopied version of The Quiet American in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), outside of the Museum of American War Crimes. Like the commenter above, I’d also strongly recommend The Power and the Glory. The End of the Affair is also a good read.

  3. I’ve got The Power and the Glory on my list but the novel I signed out next was The Comedians, on the recommendation of a friend. There are a couple of characters handled in a particular way in that book which interest me. But I think I shall read a lot of Greene while I have the chance to do it for free.

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