Sunday, May 21, 2017

Five of the best books on Southeast Asian travel literature

Cat Barton is a correspondent for the Agence France Presse in Hong Kong. At Five Books she tagged five top titles on Southeast Asian travel literature, including:
The Quiet American by Graham Greene

It’s a fantastic novel, which is set in Saigon in the early 1950s and foreshadows the Vietnam War. It’s particularly nice to read when you’re in Ho Chi Minh now because Greene describes the city extraordinarily well. It’s obviously set in a very different time, but many of the buildings he writes about can still be seen today.

The plot involves an embittered British journalist, Fowler, who is living in Saigon. Fowler, an opium addict, is in love with a young, beautiful Vietnamese woman called Phuong. Fowler then meets Pyle, ‘a quiet American’, and he initially feels an almost paternal instinct towards him. Later he realises that Pyle has fallen in love with Phuong and steals her away from him. Phuong wanted to marry Fowler but he couldn’t get a divorce from his Catholic wife. When Pyle makes all sorts of promises to marry Phuong and take her to the United States, Phuong accepts – before everything then changes. Fowler gradually realises that Pyle is in Vietnam as a passionate advocate of a ‘third force’, which then stirs up a local uprising to win the war. This involves tactics such as planting bombs in public places, which kills innocent people.

Fowler’s relationship with Phuong in particular is beautifully described and it’s a very careful and insightful portrait of the nature of some relationships between Western men and young Southeast Asian women, which still has much resonance today.
Read about the other entries at Five Books.

The Quiet American is among Richard Haass's six top books for understanding global politics, Sara Jonsson's seven best literary treatments of envy, Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones's top ten classic spy novels, Tom Rachman's top ten journalist's tales, John Mullan's ten best journalists in literature, Charles Glass's five best books on Americans abroad, 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