Reading about the hapless foreign correspondent in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1937) made me decide to reread Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1956) for the first time in about ten years. Doing so highlighted the contrasts between the two men’s essentially dark visions. Both are troubled by the state of the world and deeply doubt human motivations and aspirations. It would be easy to point to their shared Catholicism as the cause, but Waugh, at least, was a pessimist before he converted, as Decline and Fall (1928) demonstrates.
Even if Catholicism were at the root of their similar outlook, it wouldn’t explain the utterly different lessons the men draw from their view of the world. Waugh, it seems, thinks the world’s failures so far beyond meager human powers to ameliorate that, really, one ought to just laugh. And drink. And hope not to die of a tropical disease. Nearly all of his characters are horrible (at least up until his post-war turn to the serious, which may be to his credit as a person, but was to his detriment as a writer), and therefore there is almost no hint of guilt or responsibility. That’s not to say he’s going to let us be horrid without pointing it out, but when everyone is making the world worse, it’s hard to blame any particular person.
Greene, on the other hand, presents a world similarly flawed—and probably just as unlikely to get better—but he suffuses it with guilt. We are responsible for the terrible conditions around us, but nearly everything we try to do makes things worse. Yet knowing that we are going to fail doesn’t absolve us of the duty to try, nor of the guilt of failing. There may ultimately be redemption through suffering, but it is uncertain and, at the very least, long-deferred.
Waugh and Greene are also two of the most distinct prose stylists in English, and Greene’s language is at its best in in The Quiet American. He makes wonderful use of the past tense, turning a generally unobtrusive convention into a tool for conveying inevitability, loss, and decline. The opening paragraph, as the narrator, Fowler, waits for Pyle, the “quiet American,” gives as good a sense of Greene’s technique in The Quiet American as anything:
After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinat’ he had said, “I’ll be with you at latest by ten,” and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street. A lot of old women in black trousers squatted on the landing; it was February and I suppose too hot for them in bed. One trishaw driver pedaled slowly by towards the riverfront and I could see lamps burning where they had disembarked the new American planes. There was no sign of Pyle anywhere in the long street.
Even as we’re being told, everything’s already happened. It’s over. There’s nothing we can do. The American agent has gotten himself killed by a revolution he can’t even begin to understand.
The book’s structure feeds that hopeless tone by opening with Pyle’s death and slowly doling out information and incident until we are back where we started. But despite that air of inevitability, The Quiet American is a tense book; uncertainty and danger hover over even the quotidian details of life in war-torn Vietnam . It has its flaws, certainly—ranging from the underdevelopment of Fowler’s (and Pyle’s) girlfriend, Phuong to Greene’s seeming ambivalence about Fowler’s self-assigned guilt—but it’s as exciting and thought-provoking as any of Greene’s novels.
Most of the time these days when people write about The Quiet American, they write about its portrayal of American international meddling, usually to demonstrate that America has learned little in the intervening fifty years. And though such uses diminish the book, it’s hard to disagree with the argument. Pyle, in his murderous ideological blundering, could easily report to Rumsfeld, and Pyle’s ideological mentor , York Harding, could be replaced by Kenneth Pollack, Robert Kaplan, or any of a number of others.
But I think Greene goes slightly awry in his portrayal of Pyle’s actual, destructive innocence. Though Pyle has accepted that casualties are inevitable on the road to democracy, he still believes they are intentionally minimized and that there are things we and, by extension, anyone fighting for freedom with us, will not do. When confronted with civilians murdered by his ally, General Thé, he says,
“Thé wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists . . .”
I have trouble imagining anyone in Pyle’s position being quite so naïve—it’s hard to imagine Rumsfeld or Cheney caring enough to try to believe in their ally’s essential goodness. To that crew, if someone is on our side, their actions are, de facto, acceptable. And if they’re against us, god help them.
Though maybe Greene’s right—maybe in the mid-fifties a field operative like Pyle would have been that innocent. Or maybe the fifty intervening years of American foreign policy have made me more cynical about our intentions than even Greene was. Or maybe Rumsfeld, Cheney, et al. are simply that much worse.
Actually, that’s probably the answer. For five years running, it’s been your best bet in any question of incompetence or nastiness or corruption, or even evil. So they probably are that much worse. As Brad DeLong puts it, the Bush administration is worse than you imagine, even after you’ve taken into account that they’re worse than you imagined.