Monday, January 24, 2011

Five best books on Americans abroad

Charles Glass is a broadcaster, journalist and writer, who began his journalistic career in 1973 at the ABC News Beirut bureau with Peter Jennings. He covered the October Arab-Israeli War on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. He also covered civil war in Lebanon, where artillery fire wounded him in 1976. He was ABC News Chief Middle East correspondent from 1983 to 1993. Since 1993, he has been a freelance writer in Paris, Tuscany, Venice and London, regularly covering the Middle East, the Balkans, southeast Asia and the Mediterranean region. He has also published books, short stories, essays and articles in the United States and Europe.

With Marina Jankovic at FiveBooks, he discussed some favorite books about his countrymen in other countries, including:
The Quiet American by Graham Greene

This is your only book written by a non-American about an Englishman and an American in Vietnam as the French colonialists are leaving. Let’s talk about the American character, Pyle. He starts off as an idealist and ends up a murderer. Was America’s presence in Vietnam motivated by idealism?

In the case of Pyle, he was Ivy League, innocent, believed that America was a force for good and should go out and do good in the world. As the French were reluctantly leaving Vietnam, he felt that someone had to go and pick up the white man’s burden and that could only be America as only America was pure and good. He then takes part in an assassination and a devious plot to plant bombs on bicycles whilst blaming the Vietminh.

This was written before the American war in Vietnam. Graham Greene saw it coming. And it was the idealism of liberals in America that led to the invasion of Vietnam by the armed forces. They should have read the book first and realised what they were doing. I think many of them did know what they were doing but they thought it was worth it. They were clearly wrong, for America and certainly for Vietnam.

What about the love triangle in the book, involving the Englishman Fowler, Pyle and a local Vietnamese girl, Phuong?

It’s a very well-told story and it’s also the old empire and the new empire wooing the non-aligned, soon to be colonialist, world. The new empire seems at first to be more attractive than the old, but turns out to be every bit as vicious.

Does the English character realise his empire is coming to an end?

Very much so. The character’s only pleasure in life is no longer sex, it’s his opium pipe and going into oblivion, denying his existence and surviving on that. This is very much a view of England at that time. A country that had lost its empire and had to find a new mission. Now, unfortunately, it has found that mission in being the Ghurkas of the United States, but at that time it wasn’t clear where it was going. He very well represents what England was going through as it withdrew, as it turned over to an empire, a new American one which was consciously taking over from the French and British empires. The French and British very much looked down on them and felt they wouldn’t do as good a job as they had done. But, in fact, they did pretty much exactly what they had done, as all of them were very destructive.

So what is the fundamental error of colonialism?

That’s another subject and not really literary but I suppose its fundamental flaw lies in telling other people what to do in their own countries.
Read about the other books tagged by Glass at The Browser.

The Quiet American
is among Robert McCrum's books to inspire busy public figures, Malcolm Pryce's top ten expatriate tales, Catherine Sampson's top ten Asian crime fiction, and Pauline Melville's top 10 revolutionary tales.

--Marshal Zeringue