Title: The Quiet American
Author: Graham Greene
Publication date: 1955
Genre: Historical fiction
Thomas Fowler, an English reporter in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, meets Alden Pyle, an idealistic American. Pyle’s views and beliefs gradually infiltrate Fowler’s world, causing distress and destruction in not only his professional but also his personal life.
Where did I get hold of the book?
This one was from the university library again. And thereby hangs a tale…
I discovered an inscription on the title page: the name of someone I knew. After showing her a screenshot of the page in question, it transpired that although it was indeed her writing, she couldn’t understand how the book came to be in the possession of the library, as she still owned her own copy…
At the time of writing this mystery is yet to be solved!
- Find the book in a library near you (worldwide).
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
As this was yet another novel set firmly in a historical period, specifically a war setting, I gained more insights into the time in question. I am relatively familiar with fictional representations of the Vietnam War, i.e. the later conflict against the Americans, but was unaware until last week of the details of this earlier war.
The narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler, is an English journalist based in Saigon. As the English were officially neutral during this conflict, this in theory makes his narrative objective. (His personal issues are another matter entirely…) We see from an outsider’s perspective just how the young American, Pyle, interprets and reacts to the troubles at hand – potentially setting the scene for the later war.
I always enjoyed studying history at school, even though this was in the days when learning texts and regurgitating them for exams was the approved method: in other words, kings and queens, battles and rebellions, facts and dates etc. These days I understand that original sources and the viewpoint of ‘the person on the street’ are more likely to find their way onto the curriculum. I imagine that a novel such as this would not feel out of place if it were designated ‘required reading’. Well, except that it’s fictional…
How did it make me see the world differently?
A prevalent theme in the book is that of choosing whether to take sides in a conflict – especially one that is not directly any of one’s business. Fowler has, up until now, followed a personal policy of isolationism; being politically neutral, he attempts not to involve himself in any debates around who is in the right and who is in the wrong; he is, as he frequently points out, merely a reporter. However, as Pyle’s actions become more and more intrusive, Fowler finds himself unable to remain unbiased any longer – and eventually takes steps that will have as much impact as Pyle’s own machinations.
This resonated loudly with me, as I am a natural introvert and, by default, choose not to take part in many social engagements and interactions; I often prefer to observe from the sidelines. But I am also aware that connecting with others is part of what it means to be human; or at least, what it means to belong to a civilised society. This is a theme I have touched on in several blog posts recently, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it is rearing its head again here.
So I am, yet again, finding myself pondering whether it is healthy to isolate myself as much as I do. Does it conserve my energies, or does it get me into antisocial habits? I think that this is a question to which there are no easy answers, and one I will be mulling over for some time to come. It may be that I need to limit the number of times that I socialise, or restrict the types of engagement I take part in, or simply schedule in adequate downtime and go to as many social occasions as I want. I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that, like it or not, I can’t just shut myself away in my cave and pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist. I need to interact with it – my problem is how to do this without exhausting myself.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
- I’ve realised that I really enjoy reading stories in historical settings, as much for the history as for the stories. I’m therefore going to make an active effort to read more historical writing. As this is going to be in my ‘spare reading time’ between Book Diaries books, there may not be much time to devote to it – but I need to try. I have at least two historical novels lined up on my bookshelves, waiting for me to delve into their pages, and I can’t begin to count the factual books I’ve come across over the years that have made their way onto my mental ‘to-read’ list. So, before the year is up, I’m committing to reading at least one historical book.
- The issue of engaging with the world and doing things for other people, as much as looking after myself, has struck a real chord. And I have an idea for something that I could do that nurtures both needs. I’m hesitant to articulate it in too much detail just yet, as I haven’t quite worked out whether it’s going to inspire me or exhaust me, but I will say that I have something on the back burner. Due to work pressures, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen in time for my 3-month update, but do keep an eye on my website and Facebook page, as I’ll be talking about it there when I finally do get going…
A musical interlude
I got a bit stumped on this one for a while. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, and I didn’t really want to post one of the many songs about the Vietnam War, as they tend to be about the second one involving the Americans – and although this book is indeed about an American, the vibe wasn’t quite right.
So I decided to formally hand this one over to my trusty subconscious. I stopped thinking about it, went down to the kitchen to cook dinner, and lo and behold! within a matter of minutes I had it: My Best Friend’s Girl by the Cars. Nothing to do with war, but as the book is as much about the personal conflict between the two men, I feel it fits the bill. Plus I love it, so that’s a bonus!