‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene and ‘Postcards from Nam’ by Uyen Nicole Duong.
I’m posting these two reviews together because my time over the past few weeks, while I was reading these two books, has been taken up writing my Christian story for AlfieDog. They shall probably be the last on Vietnam that I shall tackle for a while. I am considering writing my own story about the Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’) and both these two and ‘The Girl in the Picture’ (two posts ago) provided valuable background detail.
Set at the very end of French colonial period (1954), ‘The Quiet American’ concerns Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering The War. A dope smoker and a cynic, he is determined not to take sides or ‘get involved’ at all – except with the beautiful Saigonese girl, Phuong – his surname was apt in a very Dickensian way. ‘The Quiet American’ featured the typical Greene scenario, man abroad in remote colonies with the usual Roman Catholic wife who wouldn’t divorce him. The non-noisy Yankee himself, Alden Pyle, is, on the other hand, naive, in the Far East for the first time, but quite sure that all Indochina’s problems can resolved by a ‘Third Force’, something he has read about in books by York Harding but never experienced. Interestingly, this novel is named for someone who is not the main character, even though it is written in the first person (Fowler’s).
Greene wrote in an understated style which doesn’t get in the way of the storyline. The novel is unhurried, occasionally rambling, allowing ample room for character development, although I think we get the picture on Fowler and Pyle quiet early on, then have to suffer it being repeated… er… repeatedly. Phuong is more complicated, apparently sweet and innocent, but managed by an older sister who is determined to marry her off to a wealthy westerner. She moves between Fowler, then Pyle, then Fowler again, doing and saying whatever she thinks will please them, all the time calculating which of them is the better prospect. The saying ‘Marriage is not above love, you know’ comes to mind.
‘The Quiet American’ is a valuable primary source (because Greene spent some time in Vietnam), not least because it was published in 1955 and thereby not written under the shadow of the USA’s defeat. It confirmed what I suspected – contrary to the message presented in every Vietnamese museum – that there was some accommodation between the French colonialists and the native Vietnamese, many of whom made the effort to learn French, as well as bringing to life some of the grander hotels and government buildings which I saw in Saigon. Pity Greene didn’t like the cathedral – I quite liked it.
‘Postcards From Nam’ is not what I imagined from its title. In case you were wondering, I had in mind an American soldier writing home, possibly to his girlfriend. I also bore in mind that a sign reading ‘Nam’ in Vietnam usually indicated mens’ toilets, whereas the ‘Viets’ were one of the many ethnic groups inhabiting that particular narrow strip of the Pacific coast. The word however has another meaning, that of a nation, and it can also, as in the case of this story, be a boy’s name. The novel is about a first generation immigrant from Saigon, who is now a successful lawyer in America. For years, she has received (what I considered to be) creepy post cards, postmarked in Thailand, from somebody called ‘Nam’. However, neither the author, nor the main character, take on board the fact that she is being stalked and – even more unbelievable – neither Mimi nor her mother can remember that Nam was their neighbour in Saigon, even though the mother is contact with his parents who have moved to California. The story digresses frequently, from the current day to a few years ago, back to Vietnam in the 1960s when Mimi was a small child, then back to some point in her life in the United States.
What this work does address very effectively is the appalling suffering of the Vietnamese people after the Americans left and the Communist Viet Minh government took over. Every Vietnamese we spoke to – even our very PC guide in Hanoi – made the point that life became much worse at this time. What this book is not short on is vivid and horrific detail, for instance, of the maternity hospital in Saigon, where mothers laboured in a corridor in filth. The written style was often clunky, but did include some amazing vivid descriptive passages, such as ‘My eyes, throat, and skin were cracking, and liquid was sucked out of me, and I was ready to die like a dehydrated, crumbled leaf, losing its stem, forever departing from its tree, tumbling down, down, down until it could fall no father, onto a damp ground where it gradually disappeared into the earth. Back to its roots.’ Unfortunately, the ending of the story is ambiguous and inconclusive.
Well, Dear Reader, do I recommend these two novels? Yes and no. Graham Greene is Graham Greene and, although ‘The Quiet American’ was competent, I wonder if his publisher didn’t howl, “Really, Graham, we’ve done Catholic wives before. Many times. And the colonies.” ‘Postcards from Nam’, on the other hand, is strong stuff, not for the faint-hearted, but significant for tackling issues which we in the west were only dimly aware of at the time and have now largely forgotten.