QA: Context

BR & QA - Autobiographical Elements - Cao Dai


Black Robe and The Quiet American include France in ways that are historical -- early French colonialism in Canada, late French colonialism in Vietnam -- yet also in ways that are philosophical and aesthetic. In QA we find Pascal's sad arguments (8) and his wager (that you lose nothing by betting on God -- 130), as well as Baudelaire's "L'Invitation au Voyage" (6, 13). Greene's use of Baudelaire can be linked to decadence and exoticism (viii, 5; 6-7) and to escapism (which is emphasized at the start of the film version of QA). Here is "L'Invitation au Voyage," with my own translation. The "country" Baudelaire dreams of appears to be Holland, although the sentiment of escape is easily applicable to Fowler's feelings about Vietnam.

Mon enfant, ma soeur, / My child, my sister, / Songe à la douceur / Dream of the sweetness / D'aller là-bas vivre ensemble! / Of going over there to live together! / Aimer à loisir, / To love at our ease, / Aimer et mourir / To love and to die / Au pays qui te ressemble! / In the country that resembles you! / Les soleils mouillés / The damp suns / De ces ciels brouillés / Of those foggy skies / Pour mon esprit ont les charmes / To my spirit have the charms / Si mystérieux / So mysterious / De tes traîtres yeux, / Of your treacherous eyes, / Brillant à travers leurs larmes. / Shining through their tears. // Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, / There, all is only order and beauty, / Luxe, calme, et volupté. / Luxury, calm, and pleasure. // Des meubles luisantes, / Gleaming furniture, / Polis par les ans, / Polished by the years, / Décoreraient notre chambre: / Would decorate our room; / Les plus rare fleurs / The rarest flowers / Mêlant leurs odeurs / Mixing their odour / Aux vagues senteurs de l'ambre, / With vague scents of amber; / Les riches plafonds, / The rich ceilings, / Les miroirs profonds, / The deep mirrors, / La splendeur orientale, / The oriental splendour, / Tout y parlerait / Everything there would speak / A l'âme en secret / To the soul in secret / Sa douce langue natale. / Its sweet native tongue. // Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, / There, all is only order and beauty, / Luxe, calme, et volupté. / Luxury, calm, and pleasure. // Vois sur ces canaux / Look at these canals / Dormir ces vaisseaux / At the sleeping ships / Dont l’humeur est vagabonde ; / In their vagabond mood; / C’est pour assouvir / It's all to satisfy / Ton moindre désir / Your slightest desire / Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde. / That they come from the ends of the world / -- Les soleils couchants / -- The setting suns / Revêtent les champs, / Clothe again the fields / Les canaux, la ville entière, / The canals, the whole city / D’hyacinthe et d’or; / With hyacinth and gold; // -- Le monde s’endort / -- The world nods off / Dans une chaude lumière. / In a warm light. // Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, / There, all is only order and beauty, / Luxe, calme, et volupté. / Luxury, calm, and pleasure. //  (from Les Fleurs du Mal / The Flowers of Evil, 1857)

Moore and Greene both delve deeply into issues involving Catholicism. They deal with priests in ways that are at once distanced, critical, and sympathetic. While religious belief is central to BR, it's not as central to QA as to some of Greene's other novels -- such as The Power and the Glory (1940) or The Heart of the Matter (1948). 

Autobiographical Elements

In terms of their relation to geography and history, Moore researched and imagined, while Greene experienced and imagined. Greene worked as a journalist and also for MI6, the UK foreign intelligence agency. Greene also had wide experience travelling and living in different countries, including Vietnam in the early 50s. QA's protagonist Fowler seems to share many of Greene's own attitudes and experiences, including being a reporter on the French war in Vietnam in the early 1950s, being present on a French patrol in Phat Diem, and being present on a French aerial bombing raid in the north of Vietnam. 

The quote below -- from Greene's early novel The Confidential Agent (1939) -- gets at the type of brooding, self-doubting sensibility that Fowler shares with Laforgue, although the style in Greene is clearly Cold War thriller -- not 17th century Jesuit. At this early point in The Confidential Agent, the protagonist (named D.) is on the ferry to Dover, and the reader sees into his private thoughts. D. is most likely a Spanish Republican haunted by the bombing he experienced during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Note that the theme of aerial bombing is also crucial in QA, and may come in large part from Greene's first-hand experience of the German bombardment of London during WW II.  

In his autobiography Ways of Escape (1980), Greene comments on the interconnectedness of historical moments, his personal life, and his writing in The Quiet American.

He writes about his attraction to Saigon and Vietnam -- and Vietnamese women:

spell cast with strikes.jpg

He also writes about his consistent political interest in Vietnam:

greene on writing on china.jpg

The following reflection on the French General Delattre in 1951 is also from Ways of Escape:

French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu, May 1954 (Wikimedia Commons)

French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu, May 1954 (Wikimedia Commons)

delattre with both strikes.jpg
Vietminh, Dien Bien Phu (Wikimedia Commons)

Vietminh, Dien Bien Phu (Wikimedia Commons)

The Wikipedia article “Quiet American” notes several key autobiographical elements in the novel: "The book draws on Greene's experiences as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina from 1951-1954. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam.” Greene spent three years writing the novel, which foreshadowed US involvement in Vietnam long before it became publicly known. The book was the initial reason for Graham Greene being under constant surveillance by US intelligence agencies from the 1950s until his death in 1991, according to documents obtained in 2002 by The Guardian newspaper under the US Freedom of Information Act."

Excerpts from Ways of Escape (139-140), from      

When my novel was eventually noticed in the New Yorker the reviewer condemned me for accusing my "best friends" (the Americans) of murder since I had attributed to them the responsibility for the great explosion -- far worse than the trivial bicycle bombs -- in the main square of Saigon when many people lost their lives. But what are the facts, of which the reviewer needless to say was ignorant? The Life photographer at the moment of the explosion was so well placed that he was able to take an astonishing and horrifying photograph which showed the body of a trishaw driver still upright after his legs had been blown off. This photograph was reproduced in an American propaganda magazine published in Manila over the title "the work of Ho Chi Minh" although General Thé had promptly and proudly claimed the bomb as his own. Who had supplied the material to a bandit who was fighting French, Caodaists and Communists?

...Perhaps there is more direct rapportage in the The Quiet American than in any other novel I have written. I had determined to employ again the experience I had gained with The End of the Affair in the use of the first person and the time shift, and my choice of a journalist as the "I" seemed to me to justify the use of rapportage. The Press conference is not the only example of direct reporting. I was in the dive bomber (the pilot had broken an order of General de Lattre by taking me) which attacked the Viet Minh post and I was on the patrol of the Foreign Legion paras [military parachutists] outside Phat Diem. I still retain the sharp image of the dead child couched in the ditch beside his dead mother. The very neatness of their bullet wounds made their death more disturbing than the indiscriminate massacre in the canals around.

Tom Curry ( notes that some of the key locations in the novel are drawn from Greene's familiarity with Saigon: - "Rue Catinat, now called Dong Khoi. - Greene lived in at least two places on the Rue Catinat and chose a third as the model for Fowler's apartment in The Quiet American. - Continental Hotel, for decades a gathering place for foreign journalists and a hotbed of political intrigue. - "The House of 500 Girls," [...] actually known as The Parc au Buffles by the French [...] was a three-sided complex catering to the darker side of old Saigon."


Cao Dai 

Fowler travels to Tay Ninh ("Tanyin" in the novel) and comments on the Cao Dai religion. His cynical comments seem to come from his skepticism about 1) abstract thinking in general, 2) religion in particular, and 3) the use of religion in politics.

From Wikipedia:

Caodaism is a monotheistic religion officially established in the city of Tay Ninh in southern Vietnam in 1926. Cao Đài (literally the "Highest Lord" or "Highest Power") is the supreme deity, believed by Caodaists to have created the universe. Caodaists often use the term Đức Cao Đài (Venerable High Lord) as the abbreviated name, whose full title is "Cao Đài Tiên Ông Đại Bồ Tát Ma Ha Tát" ("The Highest Power [the] Ancient Immortal [and] Great Bodhisattva"). [...]

Officially called the "Great Way of the Third Time of Redemption," [Caodaism] became popular in its first few decades, gathering over a million members and converting a fifth to a fourth of the population of Cochinchina by 1940.

In the 1930s, the leader criticized the French colonial regime, though he also emphasized dialogue with the French. This stance was controversial, and contrasted with the liturgy of dozens of "dissident" branches of Caodaism that followed a more Taoist model.

During the First and Second Indochina Wars, members of Cao Đài (along with several other Vietnamese sects, such as Hòa Hao) were active in political and military struggles against both French colonial forces and South Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem.

Their critique of the communist forces until 1975 was a factor in their repression after the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the incoming communist government proscribed the practice of Caodaism. In 1997, Caodaism was granted legal recognition and free practice once again. [...]

The symbol of the faith is the Left Eye of God, representing the yang (masculine, ordaining, positive and expansive) activity of the male creator, which is balanced by the yin (âm) activity of Mother Goddess, the Queen Mother of the West (Diêu Trì Kim Mẫu, Tây Vương Mẫu), the feminine, nurturing and restorative mother of humanity.

Adherents engage in practices such as prayer, veneration of ancestors, nonviolence and vegetarianism with the goal of union with God and freedom from saṃsāra [rebirth]. Estimates of the number of Caodaists in Vietnam vary; government figures estimate 4.4 million Caodaists affiliated to the Tay Ninh church, with numbers rising up to 6 million if other branches are added. An additional number of adherents in the tens of thousands, primarily ethnic Vietnamese, live in North America, Europe, and Australia.

Cao Dai Temple wide angle image, shot by Vashikaran Rajendrasingh, 13 July 2007 (original upload date)

Cao Dai Temple wide angle image, shot by Vashikaran Rajendrasingh, 13 July 2007 (original upload date)