Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Quiet American

Last month, in a speech on Iraq policy, George Bush made a curiously muddled reference to Alden Pyle, the "quiet" American intelligence officer featured in Graham Greene's novel. Greene's portrait of Pyle is not a flattering one: he is an immensely naive, unworldly young man ready to remake the world in the image of American democracy. While doing my LibraryThing cataloging, I came across this book last week and decided to reread it in light of Bush's comment and the obvious parallels with the Iraq situation.

Clearly, Bush has either not read this book or is a terribly poor reader. Pyle, in his misguided attempt to enable the fermentation of democracy in Vietnam (ca. early 1950's), facilitates a terrorist act that leaves civilians dead or maimed (the chapter describing the explosion and its aftermath are classic Greene). Pyle, as a neophyte to carnage, is shocked by the result of his actions, but is undeterred, rationalizing that the civilians "died for democracy".

Greene's book shows the Americans bumbling into the French colonial disaster in Southeast Asia, but in essence this provides a background to the moral awakening of the "narrator", Thomas Fowler, the British correspondent who keeps a Vietnamese mistress while trying to stay uninvolved in the political situation. Fowler's contempt for Pyle - who in addition to his subversive activities has tried to "liberate" Fowler's mistress as well - ultimately leads to his abandoning his moral ambivalence. Although Pyle had in fact saved his life in the course of a nighttime attack in the Vietnamese countryside, Fowler assists in luring Pyle into an ambush in which he is murdered. Did Fowler make the decision to let Pyle be killed because of his recklessness in fomenting deadly unrest, because of his contempt for his naivete, or because of Pyle's attempts to seduce Phong away from him?

In the end, Fowler's own hypocrisies and fears are exposed - a self-awakening for which Pyle is the catalyst. But Pyle is no hero. Despite his "quietness", he is a dangerous man - a man without understanding who attempts to remake the world according to his own ideal.

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