Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell

Thursday, September 30th, 2021

I had been meaning to read the copy of The Quiet American on my shelf for some time, when I finally got the audiobook and listened to it instead. As Wikipedia explains, Greene worked as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954 and was inspired to write The Quiet American while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province in October 1951, when he was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”.

The two main characters are the first-person narrator, Thomas Fowler, a jaded British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than two years, and the quiet American of the title, Alden Pyle, an idealistic Harvard man working for the recently renamed OSS.

I wasn’t even aware of the 2002 film, but its casting seems perfect: Michael Caine as Fowler, and Brendan Fraser as Pyle. There’s a reason I hadn’t noticed its release:

The first rough cut was screened to a test audience on September 10, 2001 and received positive ratings. However, the September 11 attacks took place the next day, and audience ratings dropped with each subsequent screening. Reacting to criticism of the film’s “unpatriotic” message, Miramax shelved the film for a year. It was finally screened publicly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The film received an Oscar qualification release in November 2002 and a limited release in January 2003.

Fowler is painfully cynical, and Pyle is painfully earnest, leading to remarks like these:

  • I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.
  • That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a 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.
  • Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?
  • I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
  • He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.
  • God save us always from the innocent and the good.
  • 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…

The novel seems oddly prescient — and, like Cassandra, unheeded:

However, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticised by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people. According to critic Philip Stratford, “American readers were incensed, perhaps not so much because of the biased portrait of obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism in Alden Pyle, but because in this case it was drawn with such acid pleasure by a middle-class English snob like Thomas Fowler whom they were all too ready to identify with Greene himself”.

One small line from the novel caught my attention: “the restaurant had an iron grille to keep out grenades.”


  1. Altitude Zero says:

    I can’t comment on the book or movie, but Graham Greene was a very questionable person; he was a friend of traitor Kim Philby, and even wrote the introduction to his book after he defected to Moscow, and he also smuggled material to Fidel Castro, whom he professed to admire. I doubt very seriously if his takes on American foreign policy were exactly unbiased. Not a fan…

  2. Isegoria says:

    Thomas Fowler, Graham Greene’s obvious stand-in, is an unsavory and unsympathetic character, too.

  3. Bruce Purcell says:

    John Steinbeck wrote about Viet Cong throwing hand grenades into Catholic girls’ schools. Liberals disliked him for it.

  4. Bomag says:

    A recurring theme in lit is of the sophisticated Brit vs. the naive American.

    History hasn’t been kind to the sophisticated Brit: poorly drawn borders, poor generalship in WW1, etc. And now their country has gone Woke, so how fundamentally sound was all that sophistication?

  5. Altitude Zero says:

    Steinbeck was an example of something you don’t actually see much of, a genuinely anti-Communist liberal. That’s probably one reason that his work has been so utterly forgotten, aside from the fact that he was an evil white male who obviously loved his people.

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