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.
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We have the doubting, doctrinally unsound priest, like the “whisky priest” of The Power and the Glory and the gossip-mongering Father Rank of The Heart of the Matter. We have the quasi-intentional murder of innocents, as in The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock and The Third Man. We have the extramarital affair involving one or more Catholics, as in The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Honorary Consul and the play The Living Room. We have the wry blend of duty and cynicism among men in uniform, as in The Heart of the Matter and The Third Man. We have the amoral journalist, as in Orient Express and A Burnt-Out Case. We have the moral (and sexual) naïf who blunders into complicated situations, as in Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, The Comedians, even the comic Our Man in Havana and Travels With My Aunt. We have the protagonist who wishes to die, as in Orient Express, Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, A Burnt-Out Case and the play The Potting Shed. And ultimately, as in The Man Within, Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, The Third Man, The Fallen Idol, A Burnt-Out Case, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana and The Honorary Consul, we have the setup for a Judas-like betrayal.
The Quiet American continues to be read by many Americans as a Vietnam War prophecy. (The book “defined the tragedy taking shape for America long before the Marines arrived,” as a writer in this magazine put it in 1977.) Greene’s reportage may have been solid, and some of his analysis of the war was insightful. But what’s remarkable is not so much how Greene’s book foreshadowed America’s war in Vietnam as how America’s understanding of its war in Vietnam came to mirror Greeneland.
Greene invited Norman Sherry to write his biography in 1974, famously insisting that Sherry visit every place he had ever traveled to. It took Sherry twenty-eight years. Greene liked to compose elaborate practical jokes, and one suspects that he may have played a particularly cruel one by driving his biographer mad. In the biography’s first volume, published in 1984, Sherry’s prose is competent, his structuring often superb. By the third volume, published last fall, Sherry seems to have lost his grip. His hero worship of Greene has reached alarming proportions: Greene is an astute businessman, a brilliant spy, a Don Juan among women, a tireless champion of the weak and gadfly critic of the powerful.
Some of these claims may be only slight exaggerations, but Sherry’s language is slavish. (On Greene as a publishing executive at The Bodley Head in the late 1950s: “Ever a watchdog for the firm”; “a dynamo”; “never stopped writing, never stopped thinking, never stopped reading”; his “suggestions often turned to gold”; “ever-vigilant”; “a sterling publisher.”) He employs lines from his own bad poetry as epigrams. His attempts at the high style go woefully awry. (On his reaction to Greene’s death: “I was, we all are, a close witness to death’s perpetual annihilation of the womb-born.” Lay on, MacDuff!) But while Sherry has his screwy passages, he does a fine job of teasing out the real-world material to which Greene would return in his fiction throughout his life.
Greene was born in 1904, the third son of the headmaster of a middle-ranked English public school called Berkhamsted. He was physically awkward and shy, and of his two companions in adolescence, one, a boy named Carter, tortured him ruthlessly. The other, a fellow victim named Wheeler, seems in some irreparable way to have betrayed Greene to Carter. Sherry convincingly argues that this planted the seeds of Greene’s artistic obsession with treachery. By age 16 Greene had begun attempting suicide, and eventually entered psychiatric care. He made a willful recovery, partially conquering his shyness, but continued to suffer from intermittent depression, and while studying at Oxford–where he enjoyed a frenetic social and artistic life–he took to playing Russian roulette.
Sherry’s greatest triumph in the biography’s first volume is his depiction of the romance between Greene and his future wife, Vivien. Anyone who knows Greene chiefly from The Quiet American and The End of the Affair will have surmised that he had a failed but indissoluble Catholic marriage. So when we meet Vivien, a persnickety 19-year-old Catholic convert, we are prepared for the worst. Our apprehension deepens when we learn that Vivien has an almost pathological fear of sex, and that while Greene has fallen madly in love with her, she does not seem to reciprocate. He converts to Catholicism for her. When the desperate Greene suggests a sexless marriage, and Vivien responds with interest, we feel we are watching the slow unfolding of a particularly bloody train wreck.
Sherry shows us this sequence entirely from Graham’s point of view, never using his interviews with Vivien herself. And so, when the two do marry in 1927, and Sherry at last gives us Vivien in her own words, we are shocked to find her perfectly lovely. She is perceptive, with a charming prose style that is the equal of Greene’s; what’s more, she is utterly devoted to him. They set up house in a village near Oxford and produce a pair of children, while Vivien throws herself into supporting her struggling author of a husband. And the biography suddenly opens out into a truly novelistic complexity, as we realize that it is not Vivien but Graham who will destroy the marriage. Graham is going to betray her.
He did so often, as his diaries reveal, at first mainly with prostitutes, later with lovers. The first serious mistress, Dorothy Glover, was the unprepossessing daughter of the landlady from whom he rented a writing studio, after literary success allowed the Greenes to move to London. Greene’s affair with Dorothy deepened during the Blitz. He then joined the SIS, Britain’s intelligence service, and shipped out to Sierra Leone for more than a year; by the end of this period Vivien was reduced to pleading letters in an increasingly desperate version of their earlier pet language. When Greene returned to London he was tired of Dorothy, but he kept on with her until after the war, out of guilt. He then fell madly in love with the stunning Catherine Walston, the American socialite wife of a wealthy British politician.
Vivien knew about both liaisons, but it wasn’t until she intercepted a love letter from Graham to Walston, well after Graham had promised to end the affair, that she finally kicked him out. In one of Sherry’s interviews with Vivien, it becomes clear that Graham had been telling Vivien about his affairs: At the end of the war, when he abruptly suggested having another child, according to Vivien, “I thought to myself, ‘You’ve had all these women and you live with them and you say you love them and then come back after all these years to me, and expect to pick up everything just as it was.'”
Greene’s relationship with Catherine was bizarre, passionate and, for him, convenient. She initially wrote to Greene as a fan, asking him to sponsor her in converting to Catholicism; his novel The Power and the Glory, about anti-Catholic persecution in revolutionary Mexico, had won her over. Catherine’s husband, Harry, tacitly accepted her affair with Greene, as well as her numerous other lovers, including at least one of the Catholic priests who frequented the gatherings of artists and intellectuals at the Walston country estate. It was only when Greene, separated from Vivien, urged Catherine to divorce Harry and marry him that Harry began to set some limits, and the affair gradually tailed off. Even so, it lasted into the 1960s, and it may have been Greene’s two-timing of Catherine with subsequent mistresses–notably the Swedish actress Anita Bjork and a French diplomat’s wife named Yvonne Cloetta–that brought it to an end.
Sherry sees Catherine as the great love of Greene’s life. He’s clearly right that the affair with Catherine and the clash with Harry were the model for The End of the Affair, and that the affair with Dorothy Glover provided the emotional structure for The Heart of the Matter. In both novels, sexual love becomes a moral and theological problem that requires the protagonist to twist his ideas about God into paradoxical shapes; in the latter, the Catholic police officer Scobie, whose strongest emotion toward his wife and lover is pity, commits suicide, deliberately damning himself in the belief that he is sacrificing himself for them.
But it’s also clear that the tortured reflections on sex and sin that define the emotional terrain of Greeneland are driven by Greene’s own especially problematic relation to sexuality. No one finds it easy to reconcile sex and morality, but Greene found it harder than most. We’re suddenly reminded of this halfway through Volume 3 in an interview with Greene’s good friend, the critic Michael Meyer. Commenting on Greene’s attraction to prostitutes, Meyer says he never understood it; it “seems to me like paying someone to let you beat them at tennis.”
Greene’s fame derives chiefly from his reputation as a traveler, an adventurer and an intellectual engagé. His early loves were adventure fiction and Joseph Conrad. His admiration for Conrad led him astray as a young writer; after a promising first novel, he published two self-absorbed Conradesque failures that left him, in 1932, on the brink of severe poverty. It was under this pressure that he finally hit his stride, in 1933, with Orient Express.
Greene considered Orient Express one of his “entertainments,” which he contrasted with his more serious novels. In fact, the book is tougher-minded than many of the latter. It’s here that Greene discovers the pitiless gaze that came to typify Greeneland. The characters are driven largely by selfish, concealed agendas; they are only inadvertently teased into sympathy or engagement. Everyone’s plans are compromised, and the reader’s hopes are ruthlessly frustrated. Characters like the Jewish businessman Myatt, the chorus girl Coral Musker and the tough lesbian reporter Mabel Warren waver between manipulative greed and a touching, loyal sincerity.
Greene perfectly strikes the tone that became a signature flavor of the 1930s, the fast-talking exoticism of early film noir. But the central issues are Greene’s own: sex, betrayal, suicide, the chasm between ideology and sentiment. The Communist Dr. Czinner speeds willingly toward death, aware that his insurrection has failed. Mabel Warren’s kept lover, Janet Pardoe, mulls leaving her for the security of marriage to Myatt. Myatt lets the weary Coral use his first-class cabin; she lets him sleep with her; the transaction produces an unexpected sympathy between them, and when she disappears at the Serbian border, mistakenly arrested with Czinner, Myatt must decide whether loyalty demands that he go back for her.
Greene had always been a traveler, but Orient Express made it clear that foreign locales would be crucial to his work. His first grand trip came in 1935, when he and his cousin Barbara undertook a backbreaking five-week walking trip through the jungles of Liberia. In 1938 he headed to Chiapas, where he got the material for The Power and the Glory. Then came his wartime stint as an MI6 agent in Freetown, Sierra Leone; though there was little to uncover, by all accounts he did a fair job, and the experience provided him with material for The Heart of the Matter. In 1943 Greene was called back to London to work in counterintelligence (under the notorious Soviet mole Kim Philby) and began to show great talent. Of course, the new job was more suitable to a novelist: He was running fake Nazi agents who made up bogus stories to feed to the Germans. These experiences were eventually put to use in Greene’s classic fake-agent comedy, Our Man in Havana.
After the war, with Catherine Walston, Greene’s traveling was of the jet-set variety–New York, Antibes, Rome, Mediterranean cruises on the yacht of film producer Alex Korda. In 1948 he and Korda collaborated with director Carol Reed on The Third Man, and Greene headed to bombed-out Vienna for the research. In late 1950 he went to Malaya, where his brother Hugh was working for the British anti-Communist counterinsurgency. (Hugh would eventually become director of the BBC.) Greene headed to Saigon in early 1951, where he unexpectedly fell in love with the country; he returned in 1952 for Paris Match, and again in 1955 for the Sunday Times.
In 1953 the Sunday Times sent him to Kenya to cover the Mau Mau rebellion. In 1957 he went to China and Moscow. Then Cuba in 1958, where he wrote Our Man in Havana, and again in 1959 with Carol Reed to make the film; he met Castro while the revolution was under way, and would return later, after the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Haiti several times with Walston in the 1950s, then in 1963, during the Duvalier dictatorship, to gather material for The Comedians. Leper colonies in the Congo in 1959 for A Burnt-Out Case. In the 1960s Israel, Argentina and Paraguay, which appeared in Travels With My Aunt and The Honorary Consul. In the 1970s Panama, where he became a friend of dictator Omar Torrijos. And, more or less finally, Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.
Greene’s experience in intelligence and journalism has given him the reputation of a novelist with an unusually clear-eyed grasp of world affairs. In fact, as his embrace at different times of Castro and Torrijos shows, Greene’s politics were often romantic, based on personality as much as on principle. His visceral anti-anti-communism led him to a myopic enthusiasm for the Soviet Union. Out of a misplaced sense of personal loyalty, he refused to break with his old friend Kim Philby, even after it was revealed that Philby had betrayed British agents to their deaths; and in his otherwise admirable letter on behalf of the imprisoned Russian writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky in 1967, he declared that if forced to choose between living in the United States or the Soviet Union, “I would certainly choose the Soviet Union.” Sherry, whose understanding of international affairs is not terribly sophisticated, nonetheless recognizes this as “deliberate political folly.”
Greene was exceptionally good at complex and unsentimental portraits of individuals caught up in the gears of powerful organizational interests, and at creating an atmosphere of pitiless amorality. But his political analyses themselves were often far off the mark. (In his Paris Match article on Phat Diem, he held out the risible notion that only Catholicism could beat Communism in Vietnam.) What Greene did have, at his best, was a good ear for information and an undeterrable honesty. This allowed him to write openly about certain things that anyone should have been able to see: that Batista was going to fall, for example, and that the French were going to lose in Vietnam. It did, however, take great foresight to realize that the Americans were taking over where the French left off, and to start to think about what that takeover would look like.
Americans today come to Greene mainly through The Quiet American, for obvious reasons. If it is not his best book, it is the one that most tightly wraps his trademark sexual and political concerns into a neat, explosive package. (Greene’s spiritual side takes a bit of a breather in this novel; his Catholicism was waning.) Greene borrows the novel’s trope of Americans as political innocents and sexual puritans stumbling destructively into a complex, “fallen” Old World from Henry James, another idol of his youth. The book’s genius is to project this trope into the postcolonial cold war violence of Vietnam. It is by now such a familiar vision of the war that it takes some effort to recognize how peculiar Greene’s version of it is.
To begin with, the “quiet American” himself, Alden Pyle, is a somewhat unconvincing American. This is an issue that surfaces in other works of Greene’s as well. In The Third Man, Holly Martins, an American writer of cheap westerns, indefatigably pursues the truth about his friend, Harry Lime, a black marketeer in postwar Vienna, because they had been close “back at school.” To an American, this sounds a bit weird; such old-boy loyalty would make sense only to a graduate of an English public school. The film’s Hollywood producer, David O. Selznick, also thought Holly’s pursuit of Lime inexplicable, and went into a sort of anglohomophobic panic over it. “It’s sheer buggery,” Selznick ranted, according to Greene’s memoirs. “It’s what you learn in your English schools.”
As for Pyle, readers have been pegging him for a closet limey ever since A.J. Liebling’s review in The New Yorker in 1956. Liebling argued that Pyle is actually a Frenchman’s idea of an Englishman–“a naive chap who speaks bad French, eats tasteless food and is only accidentally and episodically heterosexual.” The implication that Pyle is gay is a stretch, but he is definitely unusual. He is supposed to be 32, yet he appears never to have had a serious sexual affair. This is too odd, even in 1951, for Pyle to stand as an American archetype, as Greene wants him to.
Pyle’s sexual immaturity is supposed to make it plausible that he might fall in love with Fowler’s paramour Phuong, and decide to marry her, after little more than an hour of dancing. Greene is trying to make a point about Americans’ moral rigidity: Pyle cannot admit that he might desire Phuong without desiring to marry her, just as he can’t admit that America’s intervention in Vietnam might stem from the will to power rather than the love of freedom. But Pyle’s courtship of Phuong is simply too rushed, too programmatic, to be credible.
If The Quiet American‘s main American feels a bit off, its Vietnamese seem strangely absent. Phuong is at the novel’s fulcrum: She stands for a Vietnam in play between exhausted, colonial Europe (Fowler) and the rising American hegemon (Pyle). The metaphor of the colonized land as a duskily beautiful woman of uncertain loyalty is as old as Antony and Cleopatra. But Phuong is no voluble queen; she is a pliant cipher, her emotions almost entirely opaque–at least to Fowler, the narrator. Greene’s treatment of her flirts with the pure colonialist cliché of the inscrutable Oriental. Characters talk about her in her presence, while she remains silent. “One always spoke of her like that in the third person,” Fowler remarks, “as though she were not there.”
Indeed, almost all of the novel’s Vietnamese are “not there,” in one way or another. Apart from Phuong’s iron-willed sister, none of the novel’s dynamic characters are Vietnamese. The dynamic Vietnamese–the Vietminh, in particular–are held offstage, spoken of but never seen or heard. In one of the novel’s central scenes, Fowler and Pyle find themselves holed up in a watchtower at night, arguing about Phuong and the future of the country while the Vietminh circle invisibly in the darkness and two young Vietnamese conscripts look on, mute. It’s a brilliant allegory for the insularity of the Western debate on Vietnam. But the novel starts to feel rather strange after a while: One expects to read about Americans in Vietnam, and finds instead a slightly improbable American and a lot of invisible Vietnamese.
The most fully present character in the novel is the Englishman Fowler, and if the reader finds it hard to get a grip on Pyle and Phuong, it’s largely because our somewhat unreliable narrator can’t get a grip on them either. Fowler is a perfectly rendered portrait of the wryly cynical expat, as accurate today as it was then. The Orientalist stereotypes in the book aren’t necessarily Greene’s, they’re Fowler’s, and it is his inability to understand Phuong that drives him to fall back on them. “It’s a cliché to call [the Vietnamese] children,” Fowler acknowledges to Pyle, before going on, helplessly, to recycle the cliché. Later, railing angrily at Pyle, he spins a contradictory vision of Phuong:
“She’s no child. She’s tougher than you’ll ever be. Do you know the kind of polish that doesn’t take scratches? That’s Phuong. She can survive a dozen of us. She’ll get old, that’s all…she’ll never suffer like we do from thoughts, obsessions–she won’t scratch, she’ll only decay.” But even while I made my speech…I knew I was inventing a character just as much as Pyle was.
It would be easy to accuse Greene of creating a Fu Manchu cartoon with Phuong, and indeed some Vietnamese readers I know find her a Western stereotype. But Greene is a much better writer than that: The book doesn’t really claim to show us Phuong. It shows us Fowler’s idea of Phuong, and his frustration at his inability to grasp her. It is in the gaps and chinks in Fowler’s depiction of Phuong that we catch glimpses of her as she might seem to herself: a self-controlled young woman, fenced in by her beauty and her familial obligations, working every possible angle to carve out a bit of autonomous space.
What’s true of Greene’s treatment of Phuong is true of the book as a whole: It never really shows us Vietnam. What we get instead are the expats’ and colonials’ failed attempts to grasp Vietnam. Greene spent most of his life writing about the colonial and postcolonial Third World, the conundrums and misadventures of the West among the rest, and part of the reason Greeneland maps so easily onto Vietnam–the reason Greene’s Phat Diem looks so much like his Chiapas and his Freetown–is that these conundrums and misadventures are so similar, the world over. They are the result of one society’s attempts to impose its ideals, institutions, economic models, clothing styles, mating rituals and dining habits on another. It’s the incongruity of occupying ideologies in occupied societies that opens up the space in which Greene wants to work: hypocrisy, cynicism, catastrophic misunderstanding; the callous disengagement of the world’s Fowlers, and the violently misguided engagement of its Pyles.
What’s wrong with Pyle, in Fowler’s view–and, it seems likely, in Greene’s–is that he claims to know: to know Phuong, to know Fowler, to know Vietnam and to know himself. Fowler keeps paradoxically calling Pyle “innocent,” even after he discovers that Pyle has been feeding plastic explosives to a rogue general for use in terrorist attacks. Pyle is innocent not because he does no harm but because he never suspects that words might not mean what they claim to mean, that things might be complicated and that people’s motives, including his own, might be far darker than they seem. It is his innocence, ultimately, that makes Pyle dangerous. “Innocence is a kind of madness,” Fowler eventually decides.
Every Western journalist stationed in Saigon during the war read The Quiet American, and, as ex-CBS correspondent John Laurence writes in his memoir The Cat From Hue, they all aspired to Fowler’s knowing cynicism. This was a tremendous change in attitude from that of earlier war correspondents, like Pyle’s namesake Ernie. Of course, if Greene’s sensibility became attractive to Vietnam correspondents, it was largely because of their disillusionment with an obviously futile war. But when one reads the ubiquitous homages to Greene’s “prophetic” writing on Vietnam one can’t help but feel that what was prophetic was less his analysis than his attitude.
By the 1970s a Greenelandish vision of Vietnam, with roots in Conrad, had become the dominant one in American popular culture. One thinks especially of Apocalypse Now, with the disillusioned, hollow-eyed Martin Sheen as antihero, and Marlon Brando channeling Orson Welles’s performance in The Third Man as the elusive evil genius. Or of the first big post-Vietnam novel, Robert Stone’s 1975 National Book Award winner Dogs of War, whose antihero John Converse–a morally disengaged, heroin-dealing, Saigon-based journalist–is clearly descended from the morally disengaged, opium-smoking Fowler. Other iconic 1970s representations of Vietnam refracted Greene’s skepticism in different ways: the wry anti-institutionalism of M*A*S*H and Doonesbury, the bitter absurdism of Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, the gritty sentimentalism of The Deer Hunter–even Taxi Driver, the ultimate American vision of righteous violence gone awry. Greene’s cynicism meshed well with the wisecracking and suspicious branch of 1970s radicalism, the paranoid radical flip side of Flower Power.
But the view that innocence is madness is not one that can sustain itself for long in America, where innocence is an integral part of the national creed. America’s Vietnam narratives became increasingly sentimental and un-Greeneian as time went on; their innocents became innocent again. During the Reagan era, in Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel In Country or the Springsteen song “Born in the U.S.A.,” the Vietnam War became a trauma–not something Americans did but something that happened to them. Martin Sheen’s nihilism in Apocalypse Now gave way to his son Charlie’s naïveté in Platoon. Vietnam movies still acknowledged American war crimes, but their leading men, once dangerous and complicated (Nick Nolte in Who’ll Stop the Rain, Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter) were now mainly fresh-faced youths betrayed by their government (Michael J. Fox in Casualties of War, Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July). By the time of Birdy and Forrest Gump, the American GI’s fervently maintained innocence had reached the point of mental deficiency.
To read Greene today, in the context of the war in Iraq, is to be reminded of how much The Quiet American got right about Americans’ style of engagement with the world, and also of how reluctant we are to accept a skeptical, Greenelandish vision of it. America’s embrace of violence in the export of democracy, and our simplistic rhetoric of freedom, have re-emerged with a ferocity not seen since the days of Alden Pyle. We are still busily searching for Third Forces, with (the now discarded) Ahmad Chalabi perhaps the most dismal contestant since Ngo Dinh Diem.
Over the past few years, moreover, the world, which for a while in the 1990s looked as if it were becoming a well-regulated, transparent open house of free-market liberal democracies (remember “the end of history”?), seems to have taken a Greenelandian turn. Intragovernmental and corporate intrigues, self-interest masquerading as patriotism and terrorist plots hatched by failed intellectuals in dusty Third World casbahs leap out at us from the newspapers every day. Al Qaeda has reinvigorated the espionage narrative and opened up the same kind of ideological chasm that the cold war represented for Greene. Meanwhile, the domestic Greene, the novelist of obsessive affairs and marriages gone sour, is more contemporary than ever; the 1999 film adaptation of The End of the Affair came at the breaking edge of a continuing wave of unsentimental, post-Clintonian treatments of lying and infidelity, from Roth’s The Human Stain to The Sopranos to Closer.
It’s odd, really. So many of Greeneland’s key elements–the doubting priests, the Communist revolutionaries, the colonial regimes–seem frozen in another epoch. Other elements, like the fixations on betrayal and suicide, seem peculiar to Greene’s psyche. How could Greeneland feel recognizable now?
Then again, how could Greene’s Phat Diem look so much like his Vienna–and still be convincing? The strength of Greeneland, obviously, isn’t in the specifics. It’s in a mood and a set of tensions: between individuals and organizations, between emotions and ethics, between lovers and loved. Greeneland is an arrangement for translating apocalyptic conflicts to a personal scale; it is a morally bankrupt stage set for the mounting of moral dramas of vast consequence. At this moment of particular moral bankruptcy and particularly compelling moral stakes, we pick up Orient Express, Brighton Rock or The Quiet American and feel ourselves weirdly at home.