The Shape of The Quiet American

I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I’d bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they’ll be growing paddy in these fields, they’ll be carrying their produce to market on long poles, wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don’t like our smell, the smell of Europeans.

The dates of work on the last page of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American are March 1952 – June 1955. It seems a long time for this short novel, and that it takes me half a day to read it might belittle the three year effort. But I’ve read it many times, it is familiar as an old friend, and I’m presently reading it for a second time this year. Twice in one year?

One learns the title character’s name (Pyle) and status (dead) within the first ten pages of the The Quiet American. This is not a spoiler; the book is a journey, not a destination. I have dozens of thoughts about this novel, but I’m now enjoying it for its structure as much as its story.

Greene didn’t play much with continuity in his novels–part of his apprenticeship as a thriller writer likely shaped his linear habits. But his best novel The End of the Affair jumps from wartime and peacetime London in odd fashion, and The Quiet American, with its four parts and divvied chapters within, loops back onto itself like an infinity ribbon ∞, mixing past and present, city life and countryside wars.

There is plenty of detail and color to the Indochina warfare of the mid-1950s Greene describes, and the chapter cuts Greene makes–from a nightclub dance floor to a darkened coastal outpost battle in the northern part of the country–are severe and catch one by surprise. The novel’s structure is jarring in that way, but fluid in its overall graceful shape; imagine cracks in that perpetual ribbon.

One reason the haphazard scenes work without linear relation is that Fowler, the narrator, is a journalist, and one can imagine a journalist in Vietnam covering disparate events from one day to the next–a celebration Friday, a bombing raid Saturday. Fowler is also a bitter man, and that too plays into the shape, as bitterness has a short shelf-life, and needs breaks and air to work well in a novel. The sharp cuts, the lack of continuity, are excellent techniques if one has a compelling narrator like Fowler, who acknowledges his happiness is his woman and his opium pipe and little else; he is narrow minded, but a great watcher in a vibrant warring country.

I likely won’t read The Quiet American a third time this year, but there is still time to do so.