Thursday, July 6, 2017

Irreview, Book Review: The Quiet American

Ever since I read The Third Man and "The Fallen Idol" (also known as "The Basement Room"), I've had a strong if unearned admiration for Graham Greene.  Those two stories were so amazing to me, I immediately placed Greene into my subjective pantheon of great authors.  Of course, I had told myself that I was going to continue to read his work, but short of seeing a handful of movies based on his novels and short stories, I never furthered my education into the man's literary prowess.

Fast forward a few years, and I finally purchase The Quiet American.

And then it proceeds to sit on my bookshelf for another year or so.

And then I watch The Quiet American (the Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser version).  The book sits.  And then I watch The Third Man (inferior to the book, in my opinion, and certainly doesn't hold up well, though I do quite enjoy it).  The book sits.

Until my recent reading spurt.  Motivated in part by this spurt, but also by a story I'm writing that involves a character that I was considering making a veteran of Vietnam, I decided to pull The Quiet American from the shelf and give it a read.

Initially, I didn't like what I was reading, and became somewhat embarrassed for my very public, very gushing praise for Graham Greene.  But, then, as many stories do (including my all-time favorite, Lonesome Dove),  The Quiet American hits its stride and evolved into as wonderful a read as both The Third Man and "The Fallen Idol."

Its concerns a British reporter and an American missionary (of sorts), caught up in the First Indochina War, fought mainly between Communist Vietnamese and French colonial powers.  At face value, The Quiet American is about a love triangle involving the reporter, the missionary, and the reporter's Vietnamese mistress.  At that face value, it works quite well.

Beneath the facade, however, is a deeply personal story regarding Greene's attitudes toward European imperialism and influence (particularly that of England and, obviously, France) and America's rising level of interference in world affairs.  As metaphors go, Greene nails it.  The intrigue is superbly interesting (once the plot gets going) and hiding it behind and in front of the love story is superbly effective.  Greene's wanton romanticism always seems so grounded and so real, that even his playing with historical facts and assumption of Western conspiracy hits you where it counts.

This is a wonderful book.  And that's pretty much all there is to say.

Rating: 16 (Style: 4 stars; Story: 4 stars)

Things I Learned:

Whoa, boy... as far as an educational experience, this one was a whopper.  On a general note, I learned a lot about the First Indochina War that I had not known.  On a more specific note, I learned quite a few words.  I wouldn't say anywhere near as many as when I read Poe, for instance, but enough that Greene will definitely be an author I turn to when I want to increase my knowledge of the English language.
  1. Caodaism - an Indo-Chinese religion originating in Cochin China in 1926, consisting of an amalgamation of elements from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and spiritualism, and having its clergy headed by a pope who as the direct representative of its supreme deity exercises both spiritual and temporal power - (ah,the artifice of modern religion)
  2. Hoa-Hao - another Indo-Chinese religion, mostly based on Buddhism.  Hoa-Haos were enemies of the Caodists in the First Indochina War.
  3. Berkeleian - philosophically, it's the notion that all things are"immaterial" or "subjectively ideal" - Really, I don't know much about it, but from what I've (very quickly) gathered, it seems like an offshoot of solipsism.
The rest are new words:
  1. breviary - a book of the prayers, hymns, psalms, and readings for the canonical hours
  2. soutane - a type of cassock
  3. chinoiserie - a style in art (as in decoration) reflecting Chinese qualities or motifs; also :  an object or decoration in this style - (you have no idea how happy it makes me that this word exists)
  4. planchette - a small triangular or heart-shaped board supported on casters at two points and a vertical pencil at a third and believed to produce automatic writing when lightly touched by the fingers; also :  a similar board without a pencil - (think Ouija board, and you've got the idea)
  5. godown - a warehouse in a country of southern or eastern Asia - (how crazy-specific is that???)
  6. zareba - an improvised stockade constructed in parts of Africa especially of thorny bushes
  7. piastre - a monetary subunit of the pound (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria) - (also apparently the unit of money in French Indochina, which I only learned by looking up)
  8. sampan - a flat-bottomed skiff used in eastern Asia and usually propelled by two short oars - (did NOT know that's what they were called)
  9. pastis - a French liqueur flavored with aniseed
  10. garret - a room or unfinished part of a house just under the roof

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