The Quiet American, by Graham Greene (1955)

A classic of early post-colonial literature, I’ve been vaguely intending to read this book for years. It’s achieved the sort of status that comes with having Zadie Smith, a fine example of today’s post-colonial literature, write a forward explaining the book’s historical importance. The novel follows an older, cynical English reporter who has been stationed for years in French Indo-China, and his relationship with an idealistic American foreign service agent young enough to be sure he knows how to solve all the country’s problems. Given that the main problem of the era was that the French, at the urging and with the support of the US, was fighting to retain control of a former colony which wanted nothing but its own independence, you can imagine how realistic the quiet American’s plans are. Greene (who was in fact a reporter based in Saigon in the early 1950’s) correctly predicts that the Americans will take over the war when the French get fed up, that it will drag out for years, and that finally the Vietnamese will win, because a soldier fighting for a salary cannot prevail against a people fighting for their own land. All of this should have been obvious to anyone paying attention at the time, but Greene (to his credit) was one of the few writers from a former colonial power to have figured this out so early. As the US occupation of Vietnam dragged on, his book must have seemed a greater and greater accusation of the pointlessness of that particular conflict. As long as wars of foreign occupation continue, we’ll have Greene’s novels to tell us “I told you so”.