Maureen Freely on Graham Greene's <em>The Quiet American</em>

When Alden Pyle arrives in Saigon, in 1952, the city's expatriates have a hard time placing him. Eventually, they come to see him as the "quiet" American. For Thomas Fowler, the British journalist who becomes his reluctant friend, the emphasis is on the adjective, as in "blue lizard" or "white elephant". Painfully polite, embarrassed by his loud-mouthed compatriots in the press corps, young Pyle might not be quite as lofty as the Cabots and the Lowells, but he's as pure-minded a Boston Brahmin as there ever was. He has just graduated from Harvard and has come to Indochina to lay the foundations for a national democracy. His mentor, to whom he pledges absolute allegiance, is the deliciously named York Harding, a cold warrior who once spent a week in Saigon on his way from Bangkok to Tokyo and went on to write a one-idea book. What Indochina needs, according to Harding, is a Third Force that can offer an alternative to colonialism and communism. Pyle's covert but not so secret mission is to find and finance the right people for the job. But (as any old hand could have told him, if he'd bothered to ask) the general whom Pyle chooses as his leader is "a shoddy little bandit" who is interested only in his own advancement, and capable only of barbarism.

I was three years old when Graham Greene published The Quiet American. I read it for the first time in my early twenties, when the US adventure in Indochina was drawing to its dishonourable, or should I say Pylean, close. The novel was enjoying a small renaissance then. It was fashionable to talk of Greene's prophetic powers. But for me, it was never just a novel about Vietnam. It was also a near-perfect description of the cold war as I had watched it unfold during the Sixties, as a child in Istanbul.

There were many types of Americans coexisting uneasily in Istanbul in those days. The US government employees did not, as a rule, mix socially with the left-leaning bohemians at the then American-run university where my father taught. But we children all went to the same school, and so I had many classmates with fathers who looked, walked and talked just like Pyle. Polite, well-spoken, clean-cut and sinister, and never not equipped with the best-quality binoculars, they could always tell you where this Soviet ship was coming from and where that one was going after it passed through the Bosphorus. But they saw only what they had been trained to see. That, at least, is how our clan saw it. We were in Turkey because we loved the way of life there, because it was a country we wished to know better. They were there to impose their ideas on it. They were interested in the country only to the extent that it served US interests as defined and designed by their distant bosses. Their lack of background meant that they were always reading the signs wrong, and backing the wrong people for the wrong reasons, while protecting themselves from correction by assuming that anyone who took a different view from them must be a communist.

The worst part was watching them get away with it. No, I tell a lie. The worst part was meeting someone who could not tell the difference between our sort of American and their sort, and who went on to hold me and mine responsible for their mistakes. So it was a relief to open a book and find the other sort of American so precisely described, defined and detonated. Pyle never poses an active threat: he is already dead and lying at the bottom of a ditch by the end of the first chapter. After that, it's just a question of sitting back while the wise, worldly Fowler maps the path of his undoing. Or so I thought when I first read the book.

And perhaps I always knew that I was glossing over a great deal. Over the past 25 years, the ghost of Pyle has made itself felt in a number of odd ways. I named the absolutist Bostonian anti-heroes in my first novel Pyle, without even remembering where the name came from. There's another Pylean in my sixth novel, on which I'm working right now. This one is based on all those clean-cut fathers I so detested as a child, and he's made my life very difficult by refusing to be as shallow or straightforward as I originally conceived him. His spiritual descendants, meanwhile, are never long out of the news. It is hard to watch a US intervention anywhere in the world without thinking back to Pyle the First. The longer the war goes on in Afghanistan, the more I come to understand that, in Washington, the ghost of Pyle is second only to the ghost of York Harding.

But when I went back to the book this autumn, what struck me most was how I'd fundamentalised it in my memory, how much I'd forgotten, or possibly never seen, in my eagerness to reduce it to one idea. I had, like Pyle, ignored the "real background that held you as a smell does: the gold of the rice-fields under a flat late sun: the fishers' fragile cranes hovering over the fields like mosquitoes: the cups of tea on an old abbot's platform, with his bed and his commercial calendars, his buckets and broken cups and the junk of a lifetime washed up around his chair: the mollusc hats of the girls repairing the road when a mine had burst: the gold and the young green and the bright dresses of the south, and in the north the deep browns and the black clothes and the circle of enemy mountains and the drone of planes".

I had forgotten Pyle's absurd, outrageous wooing of Phuong, Fowler's mistress, and how he manages to spirit her away without ever knowingly breaking his principles. I had forgotten the cruel, hilarious games Fowler plays with him, and Pyle's dogged refusal to accept that Fowler bears a grudge, because he and Fowler are friends, and friends just don't do that, do they? I had forgotten how many crazy risks Pyle takes, not just in the name of democracy, but in the name of friendship. What I did remember was the bomb that Pyle's barbarous proteges place in the centre of the city - and the callous remark with which Pyle shrugs off the deaths of innocents. At least they died for the right cause, he tells Fowler. I had conveniently forgotten that it is then that Fowler decides Pyle must die, too.

Does humanitarian outrage drive him, or is it jealousy? He knows it's both. He regrets his decision, or rather, he half regrets it, as his affection for Pyle is as strong as his contempt. There is a great official to-do after Pyle's body is discovered - then, as now, a dead American is more important than a dead anyone else. But when Phuong returns to Fowler, and life carries on as if Pyle had never existed, it is with anger that Fowler asks himself: "Am I the only one who really cared for Pyle?"

Maureen Freely is a novelist and critic

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Who needs 12 when one will do?