Greene’s style of writing is eminently readable, with realistic prose and fast-moving scenes of high tension and mystery. Many aspects of Fowler’s life correspond to Graham Greene’s: Greene worked as a war correspondent in French Indochina for two newspapers, from March 1951 to June 1955, he didn’t have a high opinion of the French, he had a longstanding relationship with a mistress, as well as with many prostitutes, he questioned the existence of God, and he had a wife whose Catholicism influenced her to deny him a divorce despite their long separation. While I am careful to separate author from narrator (correlation does not equal causation), it is clear that Greene’s life experiences influenced this work.
I have seen myself, as a spouse in a U.S. Foreign Service family, the effects of idealism in developing countries where an American’s desires, goals, and potential to influence are similar to those of Alden Pyle. The pursuit of a utopian ideal often supersedes taking the time to step out of one’s cultural frame of reference and examine what is best for the native people rather than enforce the imposition of high-minded principles—many of which simply do not translate to the local culture.
At the same time, having been—and perhaps still being—very idealistic myself, I recognize the fundamentally good desire to relieve suffering. How that is accomplished, however, and the dangers inherent in trying to exert control over another culture, is addressed magnificently in The Quiet American and is still a pertinent discussion for anyone volunteering for or wanting to contribute to a foreign country.
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Penguin, 2004.