It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided  convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991.

But to dismiss the book as simply the product of anti-Americanism is to miss its importance. And I do believe it is important. The Quiet American is undoubtedly an angry book – it’s easy to see why it was so reviled by some – but it is a justly angry book. For it depicts the dangers of imperialist ignorance and military strategies that are impervious to the horrors of collateral damage. If Greene had been writing in the nineteenth century, he would no doubt have focused his jaded but trenchant glare on, say, the British in India. Perhaps in the coming decades, it would be on China’s scramble for Africa, who knows?

The book narrates the uneasy and dysfunctional waltz of 3 characters during the closing days of French imperial rule in Vietnam:

  • the cynical, resolutely disengaged, English journalist, Thomas Fowler;
  • the naïve though well-intentioned Alden Pyle (the eponymous quiet American who turns out not to be so quiet after all);
  • and beautiful, young, Vietnamese night-club dancer Phuong who is so desperate for a secure future that she will hitch up to whoever offers the best prospects. Thus she demurely goes from Fowler’s bed to Pyle’s only eventually to return to Fowler. We never really know what she’s thinking – her story is only ever told through the perspective of the two men.

But that’s precisely the point. For in many ways, she is representative of her whole country – we never really heard what the Vietnamese had to say about their becoming a Cold War arena, did we?

Imperialism by text

This is a deeply political book (scarily prescient in that it predated the full intensity of the Vietnam war by a decade) and that is what Greene surely intended. But as Zadie Smith remarks in her insightful introduction, it transcends the now half-forgotten pitched battles of Cold War ideology.

The dissection of political naïveté in the person of Pyle seems to gain in resonance with each year that has passed since publication:

‘I hope to God you know what you are doing here. Oh I know your motives are good, they always are… I wish you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little  more about human beings. And that applies to your country too, Pyle.’

But the quiet American does not learn. To the end he remains determined that belief is more important than peace, ideas more vital than people His worldly innocence is a kind of fundamentalism: he believes that there must be belief. By hook. By crook. Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world. They do not mean to hurt us but they do. Greene’s great achievement is to allow a cynic like Fowler to champion the cause of life by insisting on the authenticity of those deaths Pyle considers to be merely symbolic. Fowler is at least idealistic enough to believe that there is not an idea on earth worth killing for. (p x)

For Fowler’s depiction of Pyle is painful. He’s from a privileged, academic East Coast background, who has studied and presented his way into employment as an overseas undercover agent (presumably of the CIA or some such, although that is never explicit). Here are a few quotations of Greene at his most withering:

Perhaps only ten days ago he had been walking back across the common in Boston, his arms full of the books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China. He didn’t even hear what I said; he was absorbed in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined – I learnt that very soon – to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world. Well he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve. (p10)

Rue Catinat in French colonial Saigon (Manhhai’s Flickr page)

Fowler’s bogeyman is one York Harding, a political theorist beloved of Pyle, who advocated the so-called Third Force (as opposed to the first and second forces of European imperialism and Soviet Communism). It sounds so honourable and contextually appealing – but it is in reality no different from the other two.

‘And now,’ I said, ‘there’s General Thé. He was Caodaist Chief of Staff, but he’s taken to the hills to fight both sides, the French and the Communists…’

‘York,’ Pyle said, ‘wrote that what the East needed was a Third Force.’ Perhaps I should have seen the fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures; Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day. I might have saved us all a lot of trouble, even Pyle, if I had realized the direction of that indefatigable young brain. But I left him with the arid bones of background and took my daily walk up and down the rue Catinat. (p17)

But the problem with such books is that reality is hard to reduce to all-encompassing theories. There are shades of the neo-cons before the Iraq invasion here, are there not? A theory which suggested that Iraq would welcome with open arms the coalition forces as liberators. And a foreign culture is always more complex than we might thing, and practically impossible to pin down for an outsider with big political theories. We can never really know how it works until one has been fully immersed for years, if not a life. As Pyle fails to appreciate even when Fowler points it out to him, his hero York Harding never had to live in the places he wrote so authoritatively about:

‘York Harding’s a very courageous man. Why, in Korea…’

‘He wasn’t an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk’s flagellation. How much can I stick? Those poor devils can’t catch a plane home… (p87)

Finally, a simple example of how selective such books can be about culture and history comes in Pyle’s discussion of his dogs:

‘The first dog I ever had was called Prince. I called him after the Black Prince. You know, the fellow who…’

‘Massacred all the women and children in Limoges.’

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘The history books gloss it over.’

I was to see many times the look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth when reality didn’t match the romantic ideas he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set. Once I remember, I caught York Harding out in a gross error of fact, and I had to comfort him: ‘it’s human to make mistakes.’ He had laughed nervously and said, ‘You must think me a fool, but – well, I almost though him infallible.’ (p66)

A School of Missiology?

But what has this to do with missiology, you ask? Everything. For having worked in East Africa, and now in multicultural London, I’m all too aware of how little I understand the different cultures I encounter. I remember thinking that after about a year, I was beginning to get Uganda ‘sussed’ – only to discover after 4 years, that so many of the conclusions I’d assumed to be basic or accurate, were built on sand. I could have read all the books I liked – and to be fair, I did read a number – but nothing can ever replace actually being immersed and teachable. Alden Pyle’s heinous error was to be neither.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t read. Far from it. I always try to read a novel by an indigenous author of the country I’m visiting, or history about that place, when I travel for Langham. It’s crucial. I’d even go so far as to say it is disrespectful not to. But the issue is not whether or not we read. The issue is how we live when we get there. It is as much about attitude as anything else. This doesn’t mean we should be disengaged – Thomas Fowler’s mistake was to imagine he could play the impartial reporter without opinions; he dreaded being recalled to London  to become a columnist and thus be employed to churn opinions out. It’s simply that the more immersed one becomes, the more informed ones opinions. As Fowler discovers when he sees the horrors of the dead bodies strewn after the Continental hotel bomb.

What Greene is surely exposing is the danger of the all-encompassing theory that matters more to us than the people it affects and the evidence of reality. Sure, he’d would no doubt be as scornful of those who take the Bible as their authority as he is of those who follow the York Hardings of the world. But be that as it may, my fear is that the church has far more than its fair share of Alden Pyles. I worry a little about those who insist on this or that strategy as the cure-all for mission, wherever we work, whatever it is. It might be a book to get everyone praying in a new way, some new church-planting strategy, the latest course that will reach the lost. We’ve got to ask – is this particular initiative more important to me/us than the individual lives it will affect? Is this strategy merely empire-building (which is of course simply another, not so distantly related, name for imperialism), even if it bears the imprint of a kingdom initiative? Or am I open to learn from those with whom I work and serve in God’s name? And even to change what I do as a result? For serving is always the key if people come first. If ideas, strategies and visions come first, then I will tend not to be too overly concerned for their pastoral welfare. It’s just a matter of collateral damage.

I’ve overstated the case, I realise. But not necessarily by much. For throughout Greene’s brilliant, gripping, but chilling book, there is a crucial motif: that of doing good and doing harm. Pyle is convinced that he is doing great good and is determined to do whatever he can. Fowler (p53) and Vigot (p11), the French policeman investigating his death, are clear he has wreaked havoc. It is flagged up by a painfully pertinent quotations from Byron that Greene uses to introduce the narrative:

‘This is the patent age of new inventions

For killing bodies, and for saving souls,

All propagated with the best intentions.’

And this is picked up by Fowler’s grim epitaph for Pyle:

I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused. (p52)

An essential read

I suspect that we’ll only take this book seriously once we cut it loose from its national and historical moorings. It is not especially important that Pyle is American, or that the locus is Vietnam at the start of the west’s Cold War paranoia about the red peril. But where the book is important is in its exposure of naïve, ignorant strategies (however well-intentioned) that have precious little basis in contextual reality or little concern for the lives of real people. Greene is not advocating detachment. He’s simply appealing, at the very least, for teachable humility. And if that leads us to a greater desire to learn in and through our service of God’s people then that must be positive.

Which is why I actually think that The Quiet American should be required reading for anyone engaged in cross-cultural (let alone, local) mission.

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Robin Weekes

    Warm thanks Mark for this astute and much needed post. So much of our ‘strategy’ talk is very worldly, very Corinthian, and like you have seen the damage that can cause in other countries (as well as our own). Thanks for calling us back to serving people not programmes. I’m just off to order my copy of ‘The Quiet American’

  2. Carol Dance

    Does Pyle cause the explosion in the city, causing deaths, because he wants the Vietnamese people to think it was the Communists who caused the explosion?

  3. Nixon is Lord

    Graham Greene was idiotic enough to belong to a group of idiots called, of all things, Pax Christi. “Liberation Theology” is another example of trying to do good, for all the right reasons, but ending up doing a lot of harm.

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