Sometimes there isn’t a fight between good and evil. Sometimes there are just varying levels of evil and the reader has to decide what is worse. The Quiet American is a story about the moral complexities of life, and how a simple, reductionist view of a conflict, of a country, or of a person is never possible.
Set in Vietnam during the French colonial war, the novel is told from the point of view of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist. He doesn’t seem to do much reporting, for he spends a lot of time smoking opium with Phuong, his lover. She is beautiful and decidedly much younger than him, but we never really get to understand her, mainly because Fowler doesn’t understand her either. Then Pyle arrives and changes everything. Pyle is an American idealist. He believes that a Third Force will save Vietnam and since he’s part of the (soon to be) CIA, he has the power to put his ideals into action. He also loves Phuong and since he is younger (and unmarried) he decides that he would be a better lover for her. He could marry her and take her away to America, while Fowler still has a wife in England.
The clash in the story is between cynicism and idealism, with cynicism being the voice for actual, individual people. Pyle’s idealism and innocence allow him to see civilian casualties as necessary in the grand scheme, while Fowler is distraught over the carnage and knows that no matter what happens, France cannot win. Metaphors abound, with Fowler and Pyle representing the old colonialism and the new imperialism respectively and Phuong being both a woman they love and a country that must be won. Fowler always tries to escape his colonial ties by having no opinion, by simply reporting, but even he cannot escape taking a side. As the French captain says, “It’s not a matter of reason or justice. We all get involved in a moment of emotion and the we cannot get out. War and Love – they have always been compared.”
I decided to read this one because I noticed that there were spies and opium addicts in it. I mean, I was also recommended it by Sarah, who knows her books. But I am a sucker for spies. My love for John le Carré doesn’t need to be documented, and the flawed perceptions of an addict can add completely unexpected twists and turns to the story. I liked this one a lot, and I’m still pulling the ending apart in my head. Has it all been done for moral reasons, or was it simply for love? And if it was for love, was it something real, or imagined that will all fall apart soon enough?