They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, “Go ahead. Win the East for Democracy.” –The Quiet American
The cathedral at Phat Diem in northern Vietnam, which Graham Greene visited twice in 1951 and where he set one of the more memorable scenes in The Quiet American, is today a placid and mildly kitschy tourist attraction. Its claim to fame is its extraordinary architecture, which resembles a sort of Franco-Sino-Vietnamese pagoda: sloping tile roofs with up-curving dragons at the corners, wooden colonnades and carved stone reliefs of bamboo and lotus flowers. The altar is topped with icons of the Vietnamese martyrs slaughtered by Emperor Tu Duc in the 1850s during the anti-Catholic purges, which would serve as a casus belli for French colonization. Up until 1951, in a peculiarly medieval arrangement, Phat Diem was essentially ruled by its bishop, who had his own small army. But in June 1951 that army collapsed in the face of a Communist Vietminh offensive and was replaced by French troops. In early December 1951, when Greene paid his second visit, the town had nearly been overrun by a surprise attack; the Vietminh had infiltrated under cover of the annual festival of Our Lady of Fatima. French paratroopers were retaking the town, block by block.
Norman Sherry, in his massive and recently completed biography, meticulously shows where Greene drew the inspiration for each of the elements in the Phat Diem chapter of The Quiet American. On Greene’s first visit, in January 1951, he met a certain Father Willich, an “unpleasant” Belgian who doubled as an amateur surgeon. In the novel, this becomes an encounter atop the cathedral’s bell tower with a disillusioned priest in a bloodstained cassock, who responds to the narrator Fowler’s distaste for the confessional with a dry barb: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever had much to regret.” The backdrop to this conversation, meanwhile, is drawn from Greene’s second visit: mortar fire bursting across the “Low Country landscape” of rice paddies, canals and church towers, and in the distance a supply plane circling over the spectacular limestone mountains of Ninh Binh.
Later Fowler, a world-weary British journalist, accompanies a French patrol across a canal full of bodies, like “an Irish stew containing too much meat.” They end up accidentally shooting a woman and her young child. These horrible incidents in fact happened to Greene, who described them in an article for Paris Match. The only major event in the Phat Diem scene to spring wholly from Greene’s imagination seems to be the entrance of the dashingly naïve “quiet American” himself, Alden Pyle. He wakes Fowler at 3 in the morning, having foolhardily crossed enemy territory to do the gentlemanly thing by declaring that he has fallen in love with Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, Phuong, and intends to marry her. In later years, accused of skewing his reporting to conform to the aesthetic constraints of the seedy, fallen world critics called “Greeneland,” Greene would insist that “the bodies in the canal at Phat Diem lay exactly as I said they did.” And perhaps, like Fowler, Greene passed the evening at Phat Diem playing cards with hospitable French troops given to deadpan Hemingwayesque romanticism. (“You will see that Monsieur Fowlair has everything he needs, a candle, matches, a revolver.”) But the “Greeneland” critics have a point. Greene’s Phat Diem is a collage of elements that surface in his fiction again and again, whether he is writing about Vietnam, Mexico, Sierra Leone or Britain.