Pico Iyer Journeys

The Unquiet Englishman

In a way, then, Caine moves us less here than if he were more brittle, more covered by his ruling carapace, and it’s not easy to believe that this doddering old man could persuade even the English papers that he’s a journalist. In the Henry James books that Greene so loved, we get spiky nuance (which Noyce catches here especially in a scene in a dance-club in which all four characters are dancing around one another, each with his or her own agenda); in popular fiction, we get straight emotion. Greene’s strength was to bring the two together, and the core of his story lies in the begrudging, unexpected friendship–even dependency–that develops between Fowler and Pyle. You have only to read the first two pages of the book and you are awash in both Fowler’s sense of remorse and in his love for a Vietnam which seems to have got deeper under Greene’s skin than any of the places he visited; he falls for the place, he rages against the innocent who would want to “reform” it and he doesn’t know what to do when he starts to like the innocent.

The one technical flaw in the book, indeed, is that the quiet American, even more than the other American characters, doesn’t sound very American at all. “God God, is it an attack ?” he says, and TK, and “It’s going to be quite chilly.” He sounds, in fact, like Fowler. The Englishman resents the American in part for being clearly more deserving of Phuong’s affection than is a married, prevaricating journalist pretending to be tough; and he grows doubly uneasy with him after Pyle does him the disservice of saving is life. But what is most anguishing for Fowler is that the young Pyle looks and sounds so much like the more hopeful, unhardened self he’s tried to put behind him. When, in the book, we see Fowler, alone, reminiscing on the times “when one was young…and full of hope,” it begins to sting precisely because he’s reminded of them, and of his distance from them, every time he looks at young and hopeful Pyle.

A man who is pretending to be cynical is unsettled by nothing so much as innocence–especially if he happens to believe in original sin: that is the heart of Greene’s celebrated ambiguity. And in all his books he is always harshest on those tendencies, whether of conscience or romanticism, to which he feels himself most susceptible; of all writers (and others can argue how much this is cause, how much effect of his Catholicism), he is the least self-absolving. “Pyle could see pain when it was in front of his eyes,” Fowler says, admiringly, early in the book, in one of the many passages in which he sounds as protective of Pyle as Pyle is protective of Phuong. Later, of himself, he confesses, “I couldn’t be at ease if someone else was in pain.” That the man who is busy destroying Vietnam in order to save it also happens to be so courtly and tender with the one Vietnamese we see him with only intensifies the complication.

Noyce clearly catches the political ramifications of all this, and the way it speaks for an aging Empire watching a new power take over, but something in the personal agony, the bitter romanticism of it, gets lost. He gives us a voice-over that paraphrases Fowler’s sentiments, but, as ever with Greene, it’s the poetry that gets lost in translation. The heartbreak of the novel lies in the fact that the enemies, as always in Greene, strike up a friendship; to have, as here, a protagonist who wears his heart on his sleeve is to have a main character who can be bruised by a passing touch.

If Caine’s Fowler is unexpectedly wrong, though, Brendan Fraser’s Pyle is to me equally unexpectedly inspired. When first I heard that the young Canadian had been chosen for the part–fresh, not auspiciously, from his performances in George of the Jungle and The Mummy–I wondered why Matt Damon, say, or Edward Norton, had not been chosen to catch something of Pyle’s agile innocence. Yet Fraser, in his floral shirt, with his bumptious eagerness to please, a hapless dog at his feet (it is the essence of Greene that the person we long to dislike–and a C.I.A. agent to boot–is always attended by a hapless dog) is pure delight. His hulking boyishness, his Ivy League bashfulness, his longing to do some good to the world are almost more vivid here than in Greene’s own telling, and though he is abruptly revealed as a naked Machiavel (in the book, we see, he couldn’t play a part to save his life), that incongruity is more the result of the director’s interpretation, one feels, than of Fraser’s.

The other best thing abut the Quiet American Redux is Vietnam. Noyce clearly has a fine and proper sense of the country’s strength–on the cover of the new, “tie-in” edition of the book Phuong towers over both Fowler and Pyle–and, forty years on from Mankiewicz and even Greene, he is able to give Phuong a clarity and a certainty that she doesn’t always have in Greene’s story. She’s always on top of things here, in every sense, and in many a scene the film adds just a touch (“No, just dance,” she says, while moving around a nightclub with Pyle, “don’t try to lead”) that reminds us how likely she is to remain one step ahead of whoever tries to claim her. The master cinematographer Christopher Doyle makes Vietnam all but the star of the movie, both in its smoky languor, and, more–this again is missing from the book–in the sense of energy and movement that is pulsing in the background, and culminates here in a visit to the General The who is just a shadowy outline in the book.

Thanks in part to his Australian background, perhaps, Noyce manages to turn an equally skeptical eye on both the British and the American presence here, and at times he adds details that almost improve on the book: the Red Sox cap that Pyle wears, to go with his copy of The Journey to Democracy; the unnaturally clean American Embassy, whose sterile, desk-llned spaces contrast with the native clutter of Pyle’s office; the Joe College-isms of Pyle (“It’s out on control,” he says at one point, and at another stresses the words “no way”) that underline our sense that the quiet American is graduating from Harvard even now. In one scene we come upon Phuong dancing alone in a room, and, wordlessly, are reminded of how she is in her own world, in a sense, beyond the reach of anyone; the balletomane Do Thi Hai Yen is clearly a foreigner to both English and acting, but she acts beautifully with her eyes. In Mankiewicz’s film, the part of the Vietnamese girl was taken by an Italian.

And yet what gets muffled here, as in almost every contemporary response to Greene, is the soft-heartedness that sits so uneasily with the worldliness, the hidden vulnerability that was, in every sense, the author’s weakness. Caine is physically infirm and shaking throughout, but he cannot find the deeper susceptibility of a man who is drawn to what he wants to dislike. The compassion is always stealthy in Greene and comes when one least expects or wants it. The villain has a son at home, the quiet American has a picture of his parents on his desk. Everybody has his reasons, as Greene famously remarked, and the sorrow of fit is that they are generally good, and human reasons. To take him as just a political fabulist, or to note only his wary intelligence, is to deprive him of the mixed feelings that, for a doubting believer, constitute almost an article of faith.

In the book this reluctant humanity crests just four pages before the end. Fowler is waiting to hear of Pyle’s death–or, better yet, of Pyle’s unexpected reprieve–when he is suddenly approached by Granger, the loud and boorish American who has come to seem to him “an emblematic statue of all I thought I hated in America–as ill-designed as the Statue of Liberty and as meaningless.” The Englishman braces himself for a dirty joke or a punch and, instead, Granger tells him, painfully, that his son has polio; it is the boy’s eighth birthday tonight, but, surrounded by Francophones, the father has no one to confess it to but Fowler (we recall that Pyle has twice called Fowler his “best friend”).

“Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered ?” Fowler thinks to himself, even as he knows he’s sent Pyle and a part of himself to his death. The encounter has nothing to do with the book’s plot; if anything, in fact, it distracts from it. But it has everything to do with the book’s point, which only someone as impervious as Pyle would ever take to be anti-American. And it comes back to us in the book’s last sentence when Fowler, who has previously scoffed at confession, tells us he longs for someone to confess to. In the movie, Granger’s outburst is just a swallowed moment that gets lost amidst the treacherous lights of Hanoi.

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