by Graham Greene
published in 1955
The Storyline (Watch out for spoilers!!)
Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for over two years. He meets a young American idealist named Alden Pyle, who lives his life and forms his opinions based on the books written by York Harding, with no real experience in matters of south-east Asia at all. Harding's theory is that Communism or colonialism are not the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force," usually a combination of traditions, works best. Pyle is young and idealistic. When Pyle and Fowler first meet, Pyle says he would be delighted if Fowler could help him understand more about the country. Fowler is much older, more realistic and more cynical.
Fowler has a live-in lover, Phuong. Only twenty years old, Phuong was a dancer at the continental. Her sister's goal in life is to marry Phuong off to Fowler or Pyle. Phuong's sister does not like Fowler because he and Phuong have been together for quite some time and it looks increasingly less likely Fowler will marry her. Fowler cannot marry Phuong in any case because his wife in England refuses to sign the divorce papers.
Fowler and Pyle meet again at the Continental. A drunk American reporter called Bill Granger, back from the North, is there and wants to go to a brothel called "the House of Five Hundred Girls". When they leave Pyle goes in a trishaw with Granger and they end up in the brothel, Fowler, who was in a trishaw with Phuong, goes in to rescue Pyle while he is being pulled into a large group of women trying to sell themselves. Pyle then joins Fowler and Phuong for dinner at a restaurant next door. At the dinner Pyle meets Phuong's sister who immediately starts questioning Pyle about his viability for marriage with Phuong. Towards the end of the dinner Pyle dances with Phuong; he dances very badly.
Fowler goes to the city of Phat Diem to cover a battle there. Pyle travels there to tell him that he has been in love with Phuong since the first night he saw her, and that he wants to marry her. They make a toast to nothing and Pyle leaves the next day. Fowler gets a letter from Pyle thanking him for being so nice about Phuong. The letter is annoying because of Pyle's complete confidence that Phuong will choose to marry him. Meanwhile, Fowler's editor wants him to transfer back to England.
Pyle comes to Fowler's place and they ask Phuong to choose between them. She chooses Fowler, her lover of two years. She does not know that he is up for a transfer. Fowler writes to his wife to ask for a divorce in front of Phuong.
Fowler and Pyle meet again in a war zone. They end up captive in a tower, and spend an extraordinary night talking about everything from sex to God. As they escape, Pyle saves Fowler's life. Fowler goes back to Saigon where he lies to Phuong that his wife will divorce him. Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong moves in with Pyle. After receiving a letter from Fowler, his editor decides that he can stay in Indo-China for at least another year. Fowler investigates Pyle's activities more closely and finds out that Pyle is importing military supplies into Vietnam from the United States. Fowler goes into the war zone and does some serious reporting.
When Fowler returns to Saigon, he goes to Pyle's office to confront him but Pyle is out. Pyle comes over later for drinks and they talk about his upcoming marriage to Phuong. Later that week there is a terrible explosion and many innocents are killed. Fowler puts the pieces together and realizes that Pyle is behind the bombing. Fowler decides that Pyle must be eliminated. His naive theories and interference are causing innocent people to die. Fowler takes part in a murder plot against Pyle. Although the police believe that Fowler is involved, they cannot prove anything. Phuong goes back to Fowler as if nothing had ever happened. In the last chapter Fowler receives a telegram from his wife. She says that she has changed her mind and that she will start divorce proceedings.
How I saw it..
I wasn't thrilled by this book. Normally I'm in to novels about wars, because it interests me to see how people behave when the worst came to happen, but this novel just seemed so shallow. There's a war, and all it seemed to revolve around is a girl who isn't even that involved, and who gets to marry her.
An innocent, naive young man and a worldwise, pessimistic old man become friends, but the young man falls irreparably in love with the young girl the old man's living with. His love doesn't do well in a country engulfed by a raging guerilla war and he focusses too much on the courting side of the whole deal.
Despite his terrible efforts, the girl does choose him, mainly because he can marry her and the old man can't. She doesn't love him, nor the old man, but she chooses the best option.
Like the old man, named Fowler, says, they remain children when it comes to love, never truly depending on someone merely for the sake of loving them, but always choosing rationally.
I'm going to be honest, and tell that I didn't finish this novel, even though it isn't even 200 pages long, but it couldn't grasp my attention when I did read it, and I found myself neglecting it while reading other novels.
For some reason I didn't like the way it was build up. You already knew that Phuong, the young girl, was going to leave Fowler, for the young man, so all you got to see was how terrified Fowler was for being alone and how he tried to manipulate the two youngsters.
It's not a bad novel, but it just wasn't something for me.