Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


The Quiet American

I read The Quiet American back in the eighties when I was still entirely in love with the romance of South East Asia. I wallowed in the perfumes and stark beauty of Vietnam. I applauded the cynical realism of Monsieur Fowler and I booed the crude idealism of the eponymous Pyle. The relationship between these two men helped form my opinions about the country of my birth and the country where I spent half my life. The fact that they were both in love with a young Asian woman only made the contrast more real.

For years after I returned home from Asia, all I could think about was how to get back to those magical lands. I knew that a life in England was not on the cards for me but America was off limits too. The Quiet American steeled my determination.

One scene from the book stuck in my mind for 30 years. When Phuong prepared Fowler’s opium pipe, Greene’s sensuous depiction of the hiss of the needle sizzling in the opium and the blissful bubbling that gave Fowler peace made me dream of the beaches of Thailand and the jungles of Burma.

Phuong prepares an opium pipe for Fowler

When I first arrived in Asia, I made a vow that I would not take advantage of the easy access to drugs. I don’t even remember why I made my vow, but I felt a certain superiority as the only one in my party to decline the bong or to Just Say No to the mushrooms and the hashish and even the heroin that were on offer at every turn.

I kept my vow until Piratefest 2016 when the spinning from a brownie sent me to my bed. It was like I’d skipped over the gentle buzz of my glass of wine and fast-forwarded to that moment when you try to keep the horizon from pitching and the room just won’t stay still. After that nauseating instant, it became even easier to Just Say No.

Karen porter enjoying his pipe.

When we trekked through the Burmese jungle, our Karen porter bubbled up his opium pipe at every cigarette break and politely offered us a hit. We always declined. The trekking group after ours lacked our temperance and their emergency evacuation for an overdose took them on an unscheduled trip to the hospital in Chiang Rai. But, still. The hiss of Phuong’s hot needle in Fowler’s bubbling bead of opium and the romance of our porter’s pipe always seemed to offer an escape from the cares of the world should I need to escape myself one day.

Convolvulus arvensis

Now she was kneading the little ball of hot paste on the convex margins of the bowl and I could smell the opium. There is no smell like it. Beside the bed my alarm clock showed twelve-twenty, but already my tension was over. Pyle had diminished. The lamp lit her face as she tended the long pipe, with the serious attention she might have given to a child. I was fond of my pipe: more than two feet of straight bamboo, ivory at either end. Two-thirds of the way down was the bowl, like a convolvulus reversed, the convex margin polished and darkened by the frequent kneading of the opium. Now, with a flick of the wrist, she plunged the needle into to tiny cavity, released the opium and reversed the bowl over the flame, holding the pipe steady for me. The bead of opium bubbled gently and smoothly as I inhaled.

The Quiet American (Greene, 1955, p.13)

In my memory, Fowler had cancer and was using opium to dull the pain. I always imagined that if the pain ever got too much for me, a trip to Vietnam and some opium bubbling in a pipe would be more romantic than a morphine drip under the harsh lights of a hospital room. Re-reading the book after a thirty-year interval, I find that my memory has bent the narrative to fit my desire. Fowler did not have cancer but what he endured was much worse. Who knew there were worse things than cancer?

I was intrigued to remember that opium sharpens the mind. I wonder how many of Greene’s wonderful novels bubbled up from the bowl of an opium pipe? How I wish my mind had the peace and sharpness that comes with opium! I have so many decisions to make.

After three pipes I felt my mind clear and alert: it could take such decisions easily without losing sight of the main question — what did they want from me?

The Quiet American (Greene, 1955, p.16)

Could I ever go back to those mystical lands? Do they even still exist? I don’t know but Grahame Green took me halfway there and for that, I am grateful.

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

L’invitation au voyage (Charles Baudelaire, 1857)
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5 responses to The Quiet American

Janet July 4, 2022

Nice piece, here! I haven’t read the Greene, nor traveled in SE Asia except to visit my expat family in Jakarta twice, but I know that the brain does what it can to create a full memory when it draws a blank on a particular detail–it fills in with whatever happens to be lying around. Saving face for itself and providing the person doing the remembering with the satisfaction of a memory that somehow seems more relevant than ever. It’s true! I heard it on a podcast once! At least I think that’s what they said 😉

My two years of high school French lessons were enough to allow me to ace a college paper on Arthurian literature by impressively including several quotations IN FRENCH in proper context–but not enough to understand the Baudelaire piece you included. So I looked up the translations and appreciated seeing several on one page, each creating at least a slightly different interpretation from the rest. Who can know which one Charles would like best 170 years after he wrote the poem? None sounds as lovely read aloud in English as the original does in French.

I’m glad your memories of your travels in Asia bring you pleasure. And that literature provides an easy bridge for getting at least halfway there.

    Ragged Clown July 4, 2022

    Back when I was travelling, my French was good enough to spend a month in Tahiti without speaking English but it’s all gone now. I can just about make sense of written French but French people speak too fast for me to follow. I needed the translations too. I loved the last one.

    I loved my travelling days but I’d be afraid to go back now for fear of how much everything will have changed. How much I have changed.

Claire ATX July 4, 2022

Reality is so harsh at times, like the blast of a bright light creating sharp-edged shadows along blank walls. Sometimes I dream of relief from a drug.

I stay drug-free now because, after drug-induced escape, there is always return to all the demands of reality, like a bad landing ending a delightful hot-air ballon ride. Better to sit on the patio with unfocused gaze. Muted pleasures come with age.

    Ragged Clown July 4, 2022

    Muted pleasures. I love that, Claire. Sitting by the harbour with my dog while we watch the ducks is my muted pleasure.

    Janet July 5, 2022

    Oh, yes! Please, nothing but muted pleasures and gazing and daydreaming for me. I am tired from the past decade’s relentless onslaught of imagery and sound and the endless need for me to act on or respond to something.

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