The Quiet American

‘York’, Pyle said, ‘wrote that what the East needed was a Third Force.’ Perhaps I should have seen that fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures: Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day. I might have saved all of us 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. He would have to learn for himself the real background that held you as a smell does…

One of the things I love about reading this book is the author’s command of history, geography, and culture. I’m reading this after Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant in which she offered knowledge of cadastral L.A. and a sprinkling of magicians’ names. I read that before writing Bel Canto, she immersed herself in the subject, opera, by reading the classic stories and attending shows. Good move, Patchett. Greene, on the other hand, has a more internalized sense of culture. His characters often reference poets, literature, current events, like it’s second nature. The narrator’s roll call, “Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day”, reference war and religion in less than a full clause. I think this helps give the novel its sweeping sense of place, and the narrator his tired experience.
The reader knows Pyle and Fowler intimately, by Greene’s such focused attention on the minutia of his conversation and the habit of mundane activity, “that fanatic gleam, the quick response to a phrase” and “took my daily walk up and down the rue Catinat”. Fowler is dismal, brooding, aged. Pyle is eager, vivacious. Their friendship is tense; their location and duty is what prevents them from being called enemies.
It’s my second Greene, after The Power and The Glory.