Fowler’s narration flashes back to the first day Fowler met Pyle. Fowler had been spending too much time with his American colleagues in the Press. He describes them as “big, noisy, boyish and middle aged” people who would often make wry comments at the expense of the French. They maintained a safe distance from the war, flying above the range of machine guns between Saigon and Hanoi and back again. Unlike these noisy American journalists, Fowler describes Pyle as quiet. In a literal sense, Fowler needed to lean in to listen when they first met. Pyle was also very serious and reserved. Fowler notices that Pyle has feelings of homesickness, which makes Fowler remember his own initial feelings of homesickness when he arrived in Vietnam years ago.
Fowler’s narration jumps around at several points in the text. This creates a mood of constant uncertainty and suspense—as we must always be asking ourselves where and when the narration is taking place. It’s important that Fowler and Pyle like each other immediately, and see much of themselves in one another. Indeed, Fowler seems to be taking an almost fatherly interest in Pyle—as if Pyle is Fowler as he once was. Perhaps this helps to explain why Fowler also despises Pyle so much—he hates himself for making so many mistakes in the past.
In the bar in Saigon on that first day Fowler and Pyle met, Pyle speaks highly of York Harding, a political theorist whom Fowler has never heard of. Pyle finds Harding’s books to be profound examinations of the clash between Communism in the East and Democracy in the West. Pyle respects nonfiction writing like Harding’s, but not fiction. Pyle’s reverence for Harding’s views amuses Fowler, but he likes Pyle’s honest loyalty to Harding in contrast with the other Americans’ “immature cynicism.”
It’s difficult to grasp Pyle’s loyalty to Harding, but Greene is writing at a time when political theorists had an unprecedented amount of control over American foreign policy (one thinks of the “Domino theory,” which was applied to the Vietnam War—see Background information), and Americans as a whole weren’t as jaded regarding war as we are in the present, post-Vietnam, post-Iraq era.
At the bar, Fowler educates Pyle on the current situation in Vietnam, as he has done for many others. Most of the fighting is taking place in the north, where the enemy can disappear into marshy rice paddies and jungle. In the south, the French control the main roads and watch towers, but it is still not completely safe – restaurants put grates over their windows to protect from grenade attacks. Several private armies exchange services for money, including the Caodaists, a Vietnamese religious group led by General Thé to fight against both the French and the Communists.
Here again, Fowler treats Pyle as something of a surrogate son: he educates him in the “way of the world,” passing on his own hard-earned experience. Ultimately, it’s suggested, Fowler bears some of the responsibility for Pyle’s actions, since it’s he who first introduces Pyle to the status quo in Vietnam. At the same time, however, Pyle clearly only hears what he wants to here, unconsciously twisting reality to fit his political theory.
Provoked by the idea of the Caodaists fighting against both sides, Pyle tells Fowler that York Harding wrote that the East needs a “Third Force,” but does not expand on this idea. In retrospect, Fowler suggests in the narration that he wishes he had seen the destructive potential in Pyle’s zeal for Harding’s Third Force theory. Instead, Fowler leaves Pyle to think about the basic outline of the political climate of Vietnam, knowing that it does not convey the real experience of Vietnam, which Fowler describes in the narration as a series of colorful, vivid sensory images of life in the country.
It’s illuminating that Pyle’s mind instantly jumps to York when he hears about the situation in Vietnam. It’s often said that a good theory is a “strong” theory—it can be applied indiscriminately to anything, and yield valuable results. Yet perhaps this is the problem with Pyle’s love for Harding: Pyle arrogantly thinks that his knowledge of an academic text gives him license to interfere with the lives of Vietnamese people.
Leaving Pyle, Fowler walks down the rue Catinat to his apartment and thinks about how Vietnam has become his home now, and how he has lost the innocent interest in his surroundings that he once had as a newcomer. As Fowler walks down the street, he makes more cynical observations, noting the smells of urine, the injustice of the police, pornographic magazines, and a group of drunk sailors, which Fowler guesses would make a good target for a bomb. Jumping forward to later in the day, Fowler and Phuong have lunch in his apartment. Fowler reveals that that day is the second anniversary of their meeting.
Pyle’s presence as a newcomer to Vietnam reignites some of Fowler’s initial feelings about the place: he remembers what it was like to be young and naïve, and sees how far he’s strayed since those earlier days. Fowler’s remarks about the bomb provide some ironic foreshadowing of the events to come—and once again, they imply that Fowler himself is at least partly to blame for Pyle’s actions in the succeeding chapters.