What I’m Reading: The Quiet American by Graham Greene and the Essence of Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever. What is it? Some non-Asian guys wonder if they have it. The questions to ask: do they only date Asian girls? Well, no, they’ve dated other ethnicities before… but now that they’re thinking about it… after their first Asian girlfriend….it’s been a steady stream of Asians since. Ah, that’s usually how the disease progresses. My diagnosis is yes.

Asian girls wonder, “Is he only talking to me because I’m Asian?” If you had to take ESL and still can’t read a whole novel in English or hold a long conversation with your boyfriend because both are more mentally taxing than calculus (which you should be pretty good at), then probably. Or if he loses interest because you’re not just good at calculus but you also write long essays and enjoy participating in a good debate about literature, American pop culture, history, or any other subject that requires a hefty English (or other non Asian language) vocabulary, then yeah, he was only talking to you because you’re Asian and was a bit disappointed to find out you were Asian and some other things too.

I’m getting side-tracked.

I’m also reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American which is very good – the first novel I’ve been assigned in my Spy Novel class that has made me look forward to the quiet hours before bedtime when I read undisturbed (unless my mother calls to ask me how are things going with that 白人?).

It’s barely a spy novel. The politics are kind of lost on me. They’re obviously important but not as important (to me, a very specific sort of reader) as the emotional bits. There’s an aging British reporter named Fowler, stationed in Vietnam to cover the French Army’s clash against the Vietminh Guerillas. He’s taken a Vietnamese mistress named Phuong who reminds me of Nabokov’s Lolita for obvious reasons. She’s beautiful, young and petite. Doesn’t talk much. Most of her dialogue is questions asking if Fowler would like her to prepare his opium pipe. (“Yes,” is usually his answer. Then they have sex) or if he’s going to divorce his wife to marry her. (“We’ll see,” is usually his answer. Then they have sex). She used to be a dancer at a club-cum-brothel until she started seeing Fowler. She doesn’t really understand love. It’s not practical and Asian mistresses are pretty practical. She hopes one day, that he’ll divorce his wife back in England and marry her. She does whatever he wants both domestically and sexually, and is looking for stability in a very unstable world. She’s “strong” in the way men want their Vietnamese mistresses to be strong: namely, that once he leaves her hopes that she’ll cry for only a few days, shrug, and carry on. Life is hard when you’re a Vietnamese mistress.

Then this other guy comes in – a young American named Alden Pyle who falls in love with her after one dance and wants to take her away from Fowler and marry her the proper way. What do they talk about? Nothing. Her English isn’t good and neither is his French. The old Brit at least can converse with her in French. And in his defense he wants to stay with her. Not necessarily marry her, but he wants to stay in Vietnam because England is…where his wife is. At the very least he can describe her like this, even if it’s mostly a poet’s lust speaking.

I saw that she was doing her hair differently, allowing it to fall black and straight over her shoulders. I remembered that Pyle had once criticized the elaborate hairdressing which she thought became the daughter of a mandarin. I shut my eyes and she was again the same as she used to be: she was the hiss of steam, the clink of a cup, she was a certain hour of the night and the promise of the rest. 

Sensual, in every sense of the word.

Later, when the two men discuss Phuong, Fowler warns Pyle:

She looks so small and breakable and unlike our women, but don’t think of her as – as an ornament. 

So what do “their” women look like? We meet a few of them in the next chapter. Fowler’s at a cafe sees two American girls chatting. At first he finds “charming” and thinks that they hardly need makeup, just “the quick dash of lipstick, a comb through the hair,” but their eyes meet and we see why he prefers Phuong’s company to theirs:

For a moment her glance had rested on me – it was not like a woman’s glance, but a man’s, very straightforward, speculating some course of action. Then she turned quickly to her companion. ‘We’d better be off.’ I watched them idly as they went out side by side into the sun-splintered street. It was impossible to conceive either of them a prey to untidy passion: they did not belong to rumpled sheets and the sweat of sex. Did they take deodorants to bed with them? I found myself for a moment envying them their sterilized world, so different from this world that I inhabited -….” 

The direct masculine glance, the impatience for action, the frightening sterility… all of which points to too much inner life and authority – the last thing a guy, afflicted with Yellow Fever, wants. Not that Phuong doesn’t have an inner life or any authority – she controls her body, for one thing, but she doesn’t demand Fowler take any action to understand her inner life – her position as a poor, uneducated Vietnamese woman during wartime prevents her from being demanding. There are so many other women like her who would love to be kept by Fowler. He knows what she wants: marriage and stability. It’s relatively simple, but between the opium pipes and the sheets, and his reporter duties that take him away from the house for days on end, Fowler hasn’t the time to deal with these things, and Phuong doesn’t ask him to. She’s a comfort girl, except he’s not a soldier. It’s not until the idealistic young American shows up that Fowler realizes he’s not her only meal ticket – Phuong’s beauty can at least can buy her a few slender options… and that’s when Fowler is forced to make a decision. Dun dun dun…

Now I’m veering into summary. Read the book. It’s good. I just wanted to thank Graham Greene for highlighting what I felt were the main tenets of Yellow Fever. (With historical roots! Wonderful).

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