A world-weary reporter works in Indochina, waiting to die. His time writing for The Times in this warzone is essentially an inefficient method of suicide, and he lives with a young local woman whom he knows he will likely abandon eventually. He loves his new country but hates the world it occupies. In enters a quiet American, Pyle, a naive young man with big ideas about democratising the country with a third force, who could rise up and end the conflict.
The key theme here is the danger of good intentions and innocence. This a country ravaged by war, and so any decision made quickly and easily will likely result in innocent deaths. Greene is cynical about human nature but warm regarding individuals, refusing to demonise his characters, even those with ideas he clearly finds reprehensible. At its heart this is an anti-conflict novel without the simplification that these often entail. Greene is still unafraid to be direct, though, through the main character’s simple recurring thought: “I hate war.”
As the foreword points out, there is a fascination with morality and unintended consequences here, as “there is no real way to be good in Greene, there are simply a million ways to be more or less bad.” Colonialism and a specific breed of Western arrogance in regards to far-flung conflicts of many different stripes are examined as the story rolls on. In a moment that feels appropriate to our current moment of history, the idea of military intervention in countries we don’t truly understand is taken to task:
“We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren’t colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back the province and we left our allies to be sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. […] We shall do the same thing here. Encourage them and leave them with a little equipment and a toy industry.”