Plot: Set in Vietnam during the French occupation, the novel is narrated by Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged English journalist. The action circles around the murder of Alden Pyle "the Quiet American". He works for the Economic Aid Mission. At once innocent, naive and ignorant he believes religiously in the American way of democracy: as a result he is entangled in guerilla politics, backing the terrorist General The against the French. Pyle also falls for Fowler's girlfriend Phuong (Phoenix). He offers her the chance of marriage. Even though Fowler's distaste for Pyle intensifies, he finds himself dragged into the American's political conspiracies. A bomb explodes in a cafe causing injury and death. Fowler knows that Pyle was involved and, concluding that he must be stopped, betrays him. Pyle is killed with a rusty bayonet. The crime is investigated by Vigot, a vigilant detective familiar with Pascal. Phuong returns to Fowler. He cannot decide whether his act of betrayal was motivated by political necessity or personal malice.
Theme: "This is the patent age of new inventions for killing bodies for saving souls, all propagated with the best intentions." The epigraph is taken from Byron. In a fallen world, Pyle's heartless idealism is as evil as Fowler's narcotic detachment. Only Vigot, whose work is a "calling", can have any chance of salvation.
Style: Despite the exotic location, the writing is grainy and monochrome, like old film. Here is a world where nobody belongs and "nothing is fabulous and nothing rises from the ashes." The prose can match the pace of a popular thriller.
Chief strengths: The clearest and most convincing analysis of the American involvement in Vietnam. No other writer conveys the shifting effects of bad conscience with such precision and enthusiasm.
Chief weaknesses: The misanthropy and disillusionment sometimes crumbles into caricature: the gloomy phases are so pat they turn mechanical.
Even Morse doesn't read Pascal.
What they thought of it then: In England it was deemed a success. Evelyn Waugh thought the book "vigorous" and the Tablet gave its blessing. The Americans were narked. Newsweek thought the whole enterprise an act of spite, perpetrated because Greene had suffered from visa trouble.
What we think of it now: Greene's reputation lurched badly after his death. He was dismissed as a Thirties' dinosaur who had never recovered from the obsessions of his schooldays. Nevertheless, all his novels remain in print and they continue to sell.
Responsible for: The fascination with betrayal which haunts the works of Le Carre and Deighton. Conversely Greene's pre-occupation with the intricacies of Catholic theology has not proven fertile ground for the contemporary thriller.
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