I couldn’t have bothered with the word, though it’s made its way through the Roman Magnus vocabulary pretty easily. Some books give you a sense of knowing and accepting ideas with an easy slide. Mine’s The Quiet American by Graham Greene, possibly the most un-spy novel of all time. I’ve worked out how much I love the book: it’s been translated to French, is backdropped by the French-Communist war in Vietnam, been turned into a film with Michael Cain in the lead role, and condemns American foreign policy.
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Few historians are forthcoming about America’s real role in French-conquered Indochina. The quiet American is Alden Pyle, an eye doctor deployed in Vietnam on a mission of economic and medical aid. If this spoiler is worth anything, he was also sent out on a fatal bombing mission in Hanoi, aided by a chemical called Diolacton.
My Roman Magnus vocabulary usually precludes the scientific, but it’s easy to succumb to the recall. The novel’s hero, an aging expatriate reporter named Fowler, makes a discovery of it and unravels the real identity of Alden Pyle. The man had the subterranean work of stirring chaos in an Asian country like a common mercenary.
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My travels to Vietnam have taken me far and wide in perspective about Western interventionism and imperialism. During my last visit to Con Dao Island, the official concentration camp during the French occupation, I walked into the horrors of the torture chambers where prisoners were bound to each other and repeatedly threatened to be fed to tigers.
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I also took time to stroll Rue Catinat in Saigon, passing through the modernized version of the Hotel Continental, where the bombing in the novel took place. I sometimes fear Vietnam’s industrial transitions cast the morbid shades of history away from local people’s consciousness.
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