Monday, September 05, 2016

Two novels by Graham Greene

On this day of celebrating American workers. I want to talk to you about two fairly short Graham Greene novels, a very serious one, The Quiet American, and a very intentionally comedic one, Our Man in Havana.

To speak just briefly of the second, which was made famous in a film version of the same name starring Alec Guinness in one of his dry and excellent comedies. Greene likes to make fun of spies and especially spies who are spying on spies. His primary target in this novel is the British intelligence network, but he is equally contemptuous of American and Russian intelligence gathering institutions. Guinness plays the role of James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner retailer in Cuba, where the electrical power is so unreliable that selling vacuums is a very questionable enterprise. Wormold’s wife has left him, and he is doing his best to keep up with the rather extravagant tastes of his devoutly Catholic 16 year-old daughter. Almost by accident, he is recruited into the British M16 (into which Greene, himself, was recruited in 1941.) He is paid extra for each new recruit he brings into the fold, and soon is making up names of agents to pad his income. When he senses that his fictitious reports are losing steam with his bosses in London, he hand-draws parts of the atomic vacuum cleaner he sells in his shop, and sends them to his superiors claiming they are drawings of very secret Cuban missile installations going up in the hills outside Havana, though this novel was published in 1958, it may seem prescient given the events of just a few years later. While his network of fictitious recruits continues to grow larger and larger, he is pressed to get actual photographs of the installations. As the comedic elements of the story roll out making Greene’s point that the spy-networks will believe most anything their local sources claim, the reader is treated to more and more of Greene’s skepticism about so-called intelligence gathering.

This is a quick and interesting read, and I would suggest that you read the book before seeing the film version, though both are funny and highly entertaining.

The Quiet American is a much more serious work published in 1955. As is pointed out by almost all commentators, the title itself is a joke. Among the press and diplomatic personnel in Viet Nam during the last days of the French occupation, the claim was that the only quiet American is a dead American. Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in Saigon; he is a heavy drinker and an opium smoker living with a Vietnamese mistress, but in most ways his voice is the moral voice, the voice of sanity in this sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes deadly serious novel. The anti-hero of the novel, Alden Pyle, announces his intention to vie for the affections of Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful but shallow mistress. Greene mentions over and over the innocence of the Americans, especially Pyle. But the meaning of innocence for Greene (and Fowler) is a peculiar one. As Robert Stone says in his introduction to the novel, “To be innocent is to be bumptious and stupid, rude, provincial, inconsiderate: well-intentioned but at the same time conscienceless and murderous.” Pyle is an American CIA agent, who has learned all he knows about foreign countries and foreign policy from books he studied at Harvard. Fowler says that his first instinct was to protect Pyle. “It never occurred to me there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm…He [Pyle] was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance….What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.”

In another section of the book, Fowler says of Pyle, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Fowler, like Greene, is old and cynical with at best a tenuous grip on life. When he loses his beloved Phuong to Pyle, he gives into the most nihilistic of existential rants, and the bitterness he expresses seems to disclose an equal bitterness in Greene. While the love-triangle in the novel, and the senseless exploits of Pyle are meant to be humorous, there is a dark seriousness that broods over this novel. Rather than telling you more of the story or quoting more passages, let me end by again quoting Stone in the introduction.
…The Quite American’s metaphorical power is undeniable; it carries a weight of truth that America and American readers will have to live with. Greene witnessed the beginning of a terrible mistake, a deadly mistake, the mistake of a great power armed to the teeth attempting to inflict its will in a part of the world to whose language and gestures it was tone deaf.
Graham Greene is one of the finest writers of the 20th century, and these two little novels are excellent examples of the many forms his literature took.

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