Quiet Americans

One sweltering afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City, known to the kids there as HCMC, I was heading up Dong Khoi, the legendary downtown street that, like a happy love affair, begins at a hotel and ends at a church. A 6-year-old boy in a faded Adidas T-shirt followed me shrieking, “You wan‘ grangree? Kwai mari can! Kwai mari can!”

Puzzled, I was about to walk on when he forced a shrink-wrapped book into my hands. It was a smeary bootleg paperback of The Quiet American, the 1955 novel that became famous for predicting the United States’ debacle in Vietnam before it had properly begun: The title character, Pyle, is an idealistic do-gooder whose naivete leads to disaster. “Grangree” -- Graham Greene.

It struck me as fitting that Saigon‘s hawkers should tout this book, for in a city constantly re-defined by different rulers, The Quiet American has remained an enduring touchstone, Greene’s ideas about Vietnam recycled by a thousand foreign correspondents during the war, and in the form of Philip Noyce‘s current screen adaptation, shaping our image of that country to this day. Still, thumbing through this faux Penguin back in my hotel, I found myself wondering why the landmark English-language book on Vietnam wasn’t written by one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who once occupied that country.

Of course, it‘s hardly surprising that such a book would’ve been written by an Englishman, for Britain‘s major export seems to be writers who travel the world and write damnably well about every single place. Over the last century or so, they’ve set the standard for recording the tricky truths of empire. Be it Kipling and Forster in India, Conrad in the Congo (and the Far East and Latin America), Orwell in Burma, Cary in Nigeria, Lowry in Mexico, Burgess in Malaya or Greene all over the map -- not to mention such relative newcomers as John le Carre, William Boyd and Giles Foden -- these storytellers chart the realities of imperial life. They capture the clash of cultures, the g-and-t-fueled realities of everyday living, the blinkered values of the rulers and rebelliousness of the ruled.

In contrast, American writers have barely acknowledged that for decades we have been the world‘s dominant empire -- its tendrils (to be benign) or tentacles (sinister) extend everywhere. War novels aside, our imperialism has inspired shockingly little memorable fiction. There are no great American novels about the U.S. in the Philippines (which we took over in 1898), the postwar reconstruction of Japan and Germany, our military presence in South Korea (where we’ve stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers for 50 years); no memorable novels about Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia or China; closer to home, no defining tales of Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Chile or the Dominican Republic (Vargas Llosa wrote the showstopper there). When I think of Cuba, I instantly think not of literature but of Michael Corleone giving Fredo that killer‘s kiss.

There are, of course, exceptions -- Herman Melville on the South Seas, Joan Didion on Central America, Robert Stone on Israel, Norman Rush on Africa, Toni Morrison on the Caribbean, Paul Theroux on Southeast Asia (though he’s something of an honorary Brit) and William T. Vollmann on hookers worldwide. (It‘s striking how many Western novels about Asia, including The Quiet American, center on women paid for sex.) But what a meager crop for such a vast, fertile field. Few stories could be more compelling than that of Americans building an empire in the name of freedom, yet for every novel that tackles this subject -- for instance, Henry Bromell’s fine, undervalued Little America, about a CIA brat‘s inquest into his father’s role in the Middle East -- we have hundreds of tired literary novels about suburban adultery, dysfunctional families or growing up zany in the South. And it‘s too early to tell if this will change now that today’s globetrotting young writers have discovered what media-savvy Dave Eggers dubs the “fourth world,” the voluntarily free-floating souls who spend their time flitting around our lonely planet -- like the Lost Generation wannabes in Arthur Phillips‘ Prague or the goofy do-gooders Will and Hand in Eggers’ own You Shall Know Our Velocity, unquiet Americans who zoot blankly from land to land trying to hand out moola and win good karma.

If our fiction has largely ignored the daily business of the American Empire -- especially from a woman‘s point of view -- this may be because we’re essentially a big, inward-looking country whose citizens don‘t quite believe we have an empire. Just a few weeks ago on Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews was going on about how the U.S. has only rarely been colonialist. While this may be true technically, it doesn’t feel that way to other nations familiar with U.S. soldiers walking their soil (nearly 100 countries at the moment), their leaders being deposed when they challenge U.S. interests (thanks, Dr. Kissinger) and American logos covering their buildings much like imperial graffiti.

Perhaps all empires are blind to their own faraway maneuvers, which tend to be unpleasant. In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said noted how the wealth described in Jane Austen‘s Mansfield Park came from slave-culture Caribbean colonies that, consciously or not, barely figure in the novel, and it’s no accident that English fiction‘s first great critic of empire was Conrad, who, as a Polish-born outsider, could see things that those from imperial nations could not. After all, the British themselves didn’t begin writing obsessively about empire until they could feel it slipping away.

And maybe we Americans, including writers, resemble the British in the 19th century. We‘re so busy reaping the material rewards of empire that our privilege comes to seem natural, even righteous; we can’t clearly see, let alone spin fictions about, the vast international machinery of money, diplomacy and military force that holds it all together. Caught within the solipsism of power, we don‘t yet care about countries whose destinies are less manifestly grand than our own.

One great virtue of all those 20th-century British novels about colonialism is their stinging sense of memento mori. In one of those pings of synchronicity beloved of newspaper columnists, Miramax began screening The Quiet American just as I was re-reading the wonderful 1970 novel Troubles, the latest volume in New York Review Books’ superb series of reprinted classics. It was written by the British novelist J.G. Farrell, who‘s best known for his enthralling “Empire Trilogy” -- Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur (winner of the 1973 Booker Prize) and The Singapore Grip (1978) -- which established him as one of the great chroniclers of imperial rot and entropy. Each of these novels is about the destruction of a vainglorious colonial enclave that, at one time, had seemed untouchably triumphant.

Troubles begins in the Ireland of 1919, the year Sinn Fein rebels and occupying British soldiers launched their endless campaign of terror and reprisal, killing and counterkilling. Major Brendan Archer, a slightly stunned English veteran of WWI, goes to an Irish coastal town to meet his fiancee, whose father owns the lavishly crumbling Majestic Hotel, a massive structure where rich Anglo-Irish colonials once frolicked at the locals’ expense. Day by day, the major gets sucked into the hotel‘s devouring aimlessness, playing whist with the biddies who still rent rooms, listening to the owner rant about the inferiority of Catholics, and becoming hopelessly bewitched by a lovely, caustic young Irishwoman, whose quicksilver charm draws him more powerfully than his dutiful belief in “the great civilizing power of the British Empire.” Even as terrorist violence moves ever closer, the hotel, like the empire, is falling to pieces all around them. Ceilings cave in, palm-tree roots burst through tiled floors, the upper stories are overrun by a legion of feral cats.

There’s no American writer quite like Farrell, who boasts one of the most enjoyable sensibilities in modern fiction -- funny, sardonic, attuned to human illusion, and aware that history is a game of dodge ball between tragedy and farce. Rather like The Jewel in the Crown‘s Paul Scott (but more imaginatively), he captures the contradictory textures of colonial experience, its abstract idealism and material exploitation, its social formality and personal explosiveness. Writing two years before the Bloody Sunday killings of January 30, 1972, Farrell nailed the visceral politics that would soon spawn the seemingly endless sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. When the major remarks that “there’s no need to abandon one‘s reason simply because one is in Ireland,” the Blimpish hotelier firmly corrects him: “In Ireland, you must choose your tribe. Reason has nothing to do with it.”

Troubles is so sheerly pleasurable that you may wonder why such a wonderful writer is so little-known in the U.S. The fault could lie in his own unlucky history. Only 44 years old and at the peak of his powers, Farrell sought to create a paradisal colony of his own, purchasing an isolated cottage on Ireland’s Bantry Bay. One stormy day in 1979, he went fishing on the nearby rocks and was swept away by the waves. Such an end, at once terrible and absurd, is one that he himself could have written, for Farrell never forgot that even in paradise, death is always sharpening his scythe.


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