Tuesday, February 22, 2011

We Fade To Grey

"I hope you know what you are doing there.  Oh, I know your motives are good, they always are... I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.  And that applies to your country too, Pyle".  

On release, Graham Greene's The Quiet American was justly decried as an anti-American novel and the production team on the 1958 film disgusted the author by significantly cutting down on the political content, focusing instead on the love triangle between the protagonists.

When the 2002 version was released, it garnered high praise for remaining true to the source material, but I'm not certain that the original movie did Greene such a great disservice, whatever he himself believed.

It's long seemed to me that, while the author may have set out to pen a searing indictment of western interference in French Vietnam, what he actually created was a nakedly intimate portrait of a tired and cynical old man, struggling fitfully to hold onto the remnant of his ill-gotten comforts.

Briefly, it's the tale of veteran English reporter Thomas Fowler's struggle to retain the affections of Phuong, a Vietnamese woman many years his junior as Alden Pyle, the idealistic, titular quiet American, attempts to woo her away from him.  As the plot unfolds, Fowler comes to realise that Pyle is funding and assisting a sinister "third force" in the French-Vietnamese conflict - the murderous General The, whose character and motivations are much more malign than the unworldly Pyle believes them to be.  Appalled by the carnage that Pyle unwittingly sets in motion, Fowler conspires with the Viet Minh to have Pyle murdered, and returns to his life with Phuong.

The neat set-up and payoff are deceptively simple.  Greene's great gift was in constructing complex characters driven by both noble and base impulses, often heroic and villainous in equal parts.  Fowler, the narrator, is unlovable, curmudgeonly and deeply selfish, concerned only with his own material and physical comforts.  His affection for Phuong may be genuine, but it springs from his mortal terror of dying alone in an uncaring world.  On the occasions when he expresses any concern for her wellbeing, altruism is hardly the spur.  He loves Vietnam for its sensual pleasures; partakes in opium-smoking and uses prostitutes, and has a failed marriage and a string of bitter, broken-down relationships behind him. 

Pyle, by contrast, is the ultimate innocent abroad, a well-meaning fundamentalist with a head full of idealistic drivel from the pen of fictional foreign policy wonk York Harding. Stiff and immaculately mannered, he arrives in Vietnam determined to make it fit his own conception of democracy and freedom, whether the populace like it or not.  His love for Phuong is genuine, yet he's as blind to the transactional nature of their relationship as he is to the blood on his shoes after one of his bombings for the greater good goes horribly awry. 

Greene doesn't care to disguise the symbolism - Fowler, the jaded ancien regime of old colonial Europe, desperate to retain his possessions from mere habit and Pyle, the upstart from the New World with Big Ideas, taking to his new global responsibilities with determination and a shocking naivety, both men vying for the affections of lady Vietnam for their own purposes.

It's to Greene's credit that he offers both as fully realised characters and leaves judgement of their virtues and flaws to his audience.  For all that it's Pyle who has more blood on his hands, he's in many ways the better, braver man, while his love rival is the schemer; the dissolute, grasping cynic.  Certainly, I struggle to believe that Greene named his narrator "Fowler" without considering the phonetic connotation.

The novel tantalisingly offers Fowler's eventual betrayal as a potential act of redemption. Fowler repeatedly declares himself neutral, not involved in the war raging around him, but Pyle's refusal to face the consequences of his actions offers the narrator the opportunity to take a side at long last.  In giving up his friend to the Viet Minh, does he finally commit a single, honest act of altruism?

Greene declines to offer definitive judgement, but such justifications are overshadowed.  In his response to Pyle's crimes, Fowler may be intermittently tormented by the recurring vision of a dead mother and child, casualties of a lost war far from the world's attention, yet he broods endlessly upon the grim prospect of his loneliness and mortality.

If Fowler's betrayal was so righteous, would he so recklessly invite retribution from the investigating police?  Would he so strongly feel the urge to confess, and would his guilt run through the novel until the final sentence?

If Pyle's murder was a necessary evil for the greater good, then why does it feel so much like a terrible crime?  After all, Pyle may be complicit in the murder of innocents, but now Fowler also has the blood of an innocent man on his hands; perhaps the most innocent that he will ever meet. 

Either that or, you know, I'm reading a bit too much into it.  Take your pick.

(This post inspired by a years-old exchange with Rosie Bell that Google now stubbornly refuses to cough up).

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