Sunday, November 01, 2015
Reading group: The Quiet Soldier: Phuong's Story by Creina Mansfield
This was Hans's suggestion, a novel that sets out to supply the lack that some of us had felt when we read and discussed Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and more: the story of Phuong, the Vietnamese woman fought over in that earlier novel by world-weary narrator journalist Fowler and the young CIA agent Pyle, in the French-occupied Vietnam of the 50s.
This novel begins in 1967 when the Vietcong are fighting the Americans, and with the emergence of Phuong from a Vietcong tunnel, a fully trained Vietcong soldier. Within a very short time it is clear that she is a cold-blooded killer for the cause - a shockingly different figure from the meek and feminine Phuong of the Greene novel. This novel then shows in extended flashback Phuong's journey to this from a genteel background destroyed by her elder brother's espousal of the revolutionary cause and arrest, along with his friend Long and Phuong's elder sister to whom Long is betrothed, and by the famine caused by the World-War 2 machine of the ruling Japanese. Left destitute and alone, a very young Phuong sets out north with an elderly companion to Ba Ra where the three were taken, a rite of passage into toughness as they travel on foot and forage for food. Phuong is raped by an attacker and her companion murdered, and, necessarily trained to kill in self-defence, she becomes a killer herself. From this moment on she will always carry the ivory-handled knife of her attacker, with which she killed him, ready at any moment to use it, and in this novel she will be wearing it beneath her ao dai even as she lowers her eyes meekly for Fowler and Pyle. Finally meeting up with her escaped and much hardened sister and her brother-in-law, she is enlisted as a member of their cell which moves south to Saigon. Here she is commissioned as an undercover spy in the role of concubine, first to Fowler, who as a loose-tongued journalist not given to taking sides is a prime source of information, and then, when he appears on the scene, to the CIA agent Pyle in whose death she will be complicit. One of the fascinations of this for those of us who found it hard to take Greene's narrative attitude to Phuong, is the physical disgust and even hatred that Phuong feels towards both men in this novel as she submits and ministers to them.
Everyone in the group agreed with Hans that this novel was predicated on a brilliant idea. John and Mark didn't feel the book fulfilled the promise of the idea, however, as they found the prose repetitive and pedestrian, and John didn't feel that point of view was always well handled. Most others said that the story was exciting enough to make it a rattling read whatever, and Jenny said strongly that although she felt that the book read rather like an book for young adults (in terms of its prose style and tone), she had absolutely loved it, and all the time couldn't wait to find out what happened next. (She was the one person who hadn't read The Quiet American - she hadn't yet joined the group when we read it.) I said that I had gone back and read The Quiet American again first, in order to not to miss anything of the comment that this book was making on it. As a result, in spite of my historic objection to Greene's portrayal of Phuong, because of his superb prose I had come to this book imbued with Greene's portrayal, and my immediate feeling on beginning reading this book that was that this very different Phuong was simply too far-fetched. Yet as I read on and Mansfield's novel took over, I began to realise that her premise is excellent, that indeed this version of Phuong is in reality the more likely. I felt that this showed something very important about The Quiet American and about prose in general: written, as Ann said, from the colonist's point of view, The Quiet American is culturally suspect, but the brilliance of Greene's prose makes it lethally persuasive. John said however that reading The Quiet Soldier makes The Quiet American a far less good book for him, since it made him think how ridiculous it was that in The Quiet American neither Fowler nor Pyle ever suspect that Phuong could be a spy, which in reality she quite likely would be - particularly Pyle, who is an undercover agent himself.
I said that I did feel that The Quiet Soldier would have made a better if perhaps more predictable story if Phuong had actually killed Pyle (rather than simply being complicit in his murder), as so much is made of her attachment to the knife she carries (and she is at one point prepared to kill Fowler), and she has so much personally to avenge, but no one else agreed with this.
Jenny said that she would now go and read The Quiet American, and everyone commented that she would not be able to read it without the filter of this novel. I said that after finishing The Quiet Soldier I had indeed gone back to the beginning of The Quiet American, when Phuong is waiting in the shadows as Fowler comes back to his flat and when, we will soon find out, Pyle has already been killed, and it was impossible not to see her waiting there as a potential assassin.
Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here