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?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide