Well, what we have here is a hard-on...ehm a hard one to review.
Pardon my French.
I bought this book on second-hand bookstall in some Oxford charity shop on an autumn day and kept it on a shelf for -hmmm- a couple of months, I think. You know, it was a book by McEwan, therefore in my mind something with the label "to get for further reading".
Then on a winter night my Chinese flatmate asked me whether I had any novel to borrow him for killing time (our broadband was long-time broken and we were pretending not to need the Internet) and I gave him "On Chesil Beach". I don't know why.
It just came to my mind that I knew the book spoke about Oxford and surroundings and Z. liked our local amenities quite a lot. But I had not the faintest idea on what the book was about.
Around 10 days later, my (male) flatmate Z. knocked to my door holding the book in his hand.
"Oh, how was it?" I asked him.
"Pretty good, pretty good - he giggled - Basically, it speaks about Oxford and Port Meadow".
"That's good. Have you liked it?".
"Yeah, kind of, kind of. I enjoyed the parts about Port Meadow".
"Oh, I'm glad you did. So it's not too bad, eh?"
"No-no-no-no! Not too bad at all".
And that was all. For a while I thought that "On Chesil Beach" was a novel about some folks hanging around Oxford involving childhood, its memories, the roaring Sixties and maybe a trip to the south of France. And including Port Meadow, of course. To put it straight: the main ingredients of the good old McEwan alchemy.
It's springtime now. In the meantime, I left Oxford for Abingdon (5 miles southwards) and finally gave a chance to this novel, which is actually more appropriate to call a novella as it revolves around a single moment: the post-wedding night of a young couple in the -not that roaring- early Sixties.
A non-consummation night. That must be said.
I don't know what to say. Overall it's a good book, but it is also a delusion somehow. I got the feeling that McEwan could have developed a real story out of the plot instead of compressing forty years in four pages at the end of the novel. And if I had known what "On Chesil Beach" spoke about, perhaps I should have borrowed something else to my Chinese flatmate. But at least I suppose he really liked the ten lines about Port Meadow here and this makes me feel better!
What I like the most in Graham Greene it's his capacity to take a snapshot of certain historical periods and milieu in the exact place and moment in which they were taking shape.
Come on, make up your choice. You can pick "Brighton Rock" (England immediately before WWII) and "The Third Man" (Vienna immediately after WWII) or "The Ministry of Fear" and "The End of The Affair" (both London during WWII) and you will always get a thrilling plot, a masterful writing style and a convincing setting.
Let's face it: Greene had the gift of being there "live". He had the right timing from the very beginning of his process of artistic creation.
I mean, Greene was not only writing about things he knew quite well in first person, but had the talent to put them on paper exactly when and where they could have likely happened. And this process required an extraordinary and almost journalistic ability in setting the scene for realistic and contemporary stories.
It's no coincidence that most of Greene's novels or so called "entertainments" were already on the big screen in a few years time.
Moreover, what Greene wrote have not lost its power today. Language and countries could have changed in the meantime (people are rather "busy" than "engaged"), but when I pick up a book by GG I know that it's going to carry me backwards in a specific time and place. I'm not reading a story or history, I'm in that story and history. To cut it short: Mr Greene was the greatest reporter of fiction.
What this author wrote sixty years or seventy years ago will never be outworn.
"The Quiet American" makes no exception to this pattern.
Here we have Vietnam in the 1950s when Frenchmen were still struggling to save their colony from the advance of the Vietminh. Paris was actually fighthing that conflict with a strong contribution of black people (Senegalese forces) not despising the occasional napalm over villages and bragging about victories to the foreign press. Later on, the Americans would have followed pretty much the same scheme having to cope with the more challenging Vietcong guerrilla.
In this early Vietnamese war, Greene puts Fowler, an expert and disillusioned British war correspondent, and Pyle, a younger apple pie-bred American leading an unclear business on behalf of the US government. These two will make the story. With Phuong, a Vietnamese girl perpetually offering pipes to her two eligible men, acting as tapestry and plunder. Pyle claims to love her. Fowler simply claims her.
But nothing is what it seems with Graham Greene. And the sentimental, idealistic, apparently innocuous, Quiet American Pyle who keeps on quoting his favourite book, dreaming about democracy and walking his dog will bring hard cheese on Saigon and the Briton, prefiguring the US involvement on a far larger scale. Which is something that Greene was able to smell in the Indochinese air already in 1955.
"The Quiet American" has its soft spots, of course, but they are not going to be mentioned here: too irrelevant they are.
This novel made me think and wonder as no other book recently did and I will risk no harm to it.