Full disclosure: I should probably have watched a Vietnam documentary before reading this book, but I liked it a lot nonetheless. Most of all for it’s characters, though also for it’s exotic, beautiful yet grimy setting. First, the characters:
Fowler: Wise sage, impartial reporter, disconnected, tired but content. British.
Pyle: Naive, idealistic, full of youthful vigor, romantic, holds principals above all. American.
Phuong: Realist, detached, seemingly unflappable, strong, yet to be protected. Vietnamese.
It’s an odd love triangle between characters who share little in common and are none of them typical heroes or heroines. We meet them at a time when the Vietminh are fighting for independence from the French, but the world doesn’t care much yet. The Vietnam War hasn’t started, and Korea’s where the action is. Even so, Fowler is a middle aged British man reporting on the ongoings in and around Hanoi, whilst enjoying the company of an 18 year old girl who has become his companion and lover. In comes the young, plucky American who dances with her once and decides he needs to marry her. He pictures himself honorable, and indestructible and braves danger to find Fowler and to tell him of his intentions toward Fowler’s girl, so as to make it a fair fight and ease his own conscience. He expects Fowler to accept her choice, whatever it may be, and holds to the old cliche ‘if you love someone, let them go…’. Fowler’s version of love is far less romantic, and though a lot more egotistical, ultimately far easier to sympathize with. He seems a lot more genuine and real, whilst something about Pyle doesn’t seem quite right. But maybe that’s just my preference for Brits over Americans.
I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.
The clash of these two men – over a woman who only wants to marry a westerner and has little notion of a romantic love – is strangely compelling and often quite funny. It is contrasted with the seriousness of the situation both in the country itself and with the fact that the reader knows from the start that Pyle is killed. What we don’t know is why and by whom, though the author of course alludes to the fact that Fowler could have been involved because of jealousy. But we also realise that Pyle’s job might not be what he says it is, and that that might have something to do with why he is killed. So there is both mystery and suspense, as well as odd characters and funny moments. The author does reveal all in due time and everything is tied up neatly. I thought the ending was brilliant. So human and somehow wrong, yet very satisfying for the reader.
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.
There is probably a lot in this book I haven’t noticed or understood because of my lack of knowledge about the period and about Vietnam. I read in a review that the characters act very much like their countries did in their attitude towards the Vietnam War, but I have no idea what, for example, the British attitude toward the Vietnam War was, and therefore obviously did not think about this myself as I was reading the book. What Greene has done, however, is to provide me with both a fascinating tale of (untraditional) love, glimpses into a country and culture I know little about, and he’s given me a thirst to know more than I do. Luckily for me there aren’t a lack of documentaries about the Vietnam War, and the preceeding period, to choose from.