eugene burdick & william lederer, “the ugly american”

the cover of The Ugly America Eugene Burdick and William Lederer
The Ugly American
(Norton, 1958)


This is a book that probably isn’t read very much any more, and if it’s remembered, it’s for the title, which has a common usage that is entirely at odds with what the authors intended. But it is still somehow in print – one would expect more for historical interest than anything else, though the Amazon reviews suggest otherwise. I had seen the not particularly good film version with Marlon Brando, which features the Thai novelist and politician Kukrit Pramoj as a southeast Asian prime minister before he actually became the prime minister of Thailand; but despite now being an American who’s lived in southeast Asia for coming up on five years, I’d never actually looked at the book until I finally got around to reading Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and started wondering about American responses to that book. Read sixty years later, The Ugly American is more than a little astonishing.

The Wikipedia page gives a reasonable background on the book some sense of its effects on the world: it’s credited there with being the impetus for the creation of the Peace Corps. It might also bear some responsibility for American actions in southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. While it is hard to make an argument for this being particularly good fiction (it is not a “novel,” as Wikipedia confidently declares), it is clearly successful fiction, shaping American perceptions of what southeast Asia was like. (In this, it’s not dissimilar to Anna Leonowen’s The King and I, a deeply fictionalized memoir of her service to Rama IV of Siam; in several further incarnations, must notably the Yul Brynner-starring musical, it continues to shape American perceptions of Thailand. Peal Buck’s The Good Earth, now mostly forgotten, also falls into this category.) And for this reason, it might be worth reading now: not necessarily to inquire whether the book is an accurate depiction or not, but to think about how this book has been read, and what a book can do.

Read historically, this is a somewhat flummoxing book. Most of it takes place in an imaginary country, Sarkhan; geographically, this appears to roughly be a stand-in for Vietnam, though Vietnam also appears in the book. Confusingly there is no mention of colonialism until halfway through the book, when the ambassador to Sarkhan goes to Vietnam to aid the French forces there fighting the Communists. What the French are doing in Vietnam, or why they should be fighting the Communists, is not explained. Nor is Sarkhan’s colonial status explained. One might assume that since Sarkhan has seemingly not been colonized (and is led by an all-powerful king) that it’s modeled on Thailand, the only state in southeast Asia that was not colonized. These distinctions matter a great deal: Communism’s success in southeast Asia was as a direct response to the predations of colonialism. In The Ugly American, Communism is an evil virus, kind of like hoof and mouth disease, that just tends to spring up among backwards people.

It is not a surprise how much racism there is in this book, or how many grand generalizations are made about the seemingly monolithic Asian character. What’s surprising is how unthinkingly casual it is. Here, for example, is a description of two servants of the American ambassador:

Donald and Roger were both elderly Chinese. The only English words they knew were the names given them by their American employers and a few necessary household terms. They had been trusted servants of the Embassy since an American ambassador to Sarkhan had hired them in 1939. They worked with an efficiency, dedication, and kindliness that never failed to touch Ambassador MacWhite. They often helped Molly with the boys. They were both excellent cooks and superb butlers. They were, somehow, a symbol of the decent Asian, and they made the entire struggle in which Ambassador MacWhite was engaged meaningful and important. They represented the honor and morality which had been taught by Confucius. (chapter 9)

It should be surprising to absolutely no one, after this loving description, that Donald and Roger turn out to know English and to be Communist spies; Donald is tortured into confessing by another “good Asian,” an Episcopal representative of Chiang Kai-shek, over to have martinis with the ambassador. Ambassador MacWhite, whose perspective this is from, is meant to be the keyed-in ambassador, replacing the know-nothing ambassador; he’s the one who goes to Vietnam to help to French fight the Communists. His idea that the “decent Asian” should be a servant educated just to the point of usefulness isn’t examined any further. (There are echoes here, as well, of more domestic American attitudes towards race. Later, a black American turns up, having joined the French Foreign Legion, presumably to distance himself from 1950s America; for his trouble, the authors have one of his eyes torn out by the Communists.) Donald and Roger are symptomatic of the portrayal of Asians in this book: except for one at the end, they all manage to betray their American friends.

Structurally, the book is a collection of 17 vignettes, mostly drawn around one character. Some of these are clearly fictionalized versions of real people; some might be recognizable to a reader with more historical knowledge than I have. Those who work for the State Department are almost uniformly buffoonish. I can’t tell how accurate a depiction of the State Department in southeast Asia in the 1950s this is: maybe everyone was getting drunk all the time, not bothering to learn languages, and glorying in having servants. The solutions proposed (not being drunk all the times, learning languages, talking with locals) do seem reasonable, if perhaps obvious. But the cartoonish view of the locals throws the book off wildly: if only, it suggests, someone smarter explained to them that Communism was evil, they would be on our side. This obviously worked out well.

Two more things worth noting about this book. Someone must have noticed that this seems to be the urtext of Thomas Friedman’s style of column-writing, especially the characters who are lauded, caricatures of hard-working Americans trying to press their commonsense ideas on the less fortunate of the world who haven’t been lucky enough to hear their homespun wisdom. Homer Atkins, one of these characters, is a level-headed engineer, the Ugly American of the book’s title. He knows by looking at his hands that he is ugly, but that somehow reminds him of his superior inner qualities. This hamfisted metaphor managed to enshrine the “ugly American” in the English language, but the book’s complete lack of control over its reception is impressive. The ugly American as now understood has nothing at all to do with what the book is meant to convey. It has a lot to do with what the book didn’t intend to convey.

june 1–15, 2018

Books

  • Anne Boyer, A Handbook of Disappointed Fate
  • Michel Houellebecq, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, translated by Dorna Khazeni
  • Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Emily Wilson
  • Charif Majdalani, Moving the Palace, trasn. Edward Gauvin
  • Samuel Steward, Philip Sparrow Tells All: Lost Essays by Samuel Steward, Writer, Professor, Tattoo Artist, ed. Jeremy Mulderig

Films

  • French Waves, directed by Julian Starke

Exhibits

  • “Caravaggio: Opera Omnia,” BACC, Bangkok
  • “Narongyot Thongyu: A Child’s World in the Days of Adults,” People’s Gallery, BACC
  • “Kraiwit Phothikul: Equivalent,” People’s Gallery, BACC
  • “Jittima Pholsawek: Let Me Dance,” People’s Gallery, BACC
  • “Yeoh Choo Kuan: Lights In,” Tang Contemporary Art, Bangkok
  • “Rituals: Ink, Oil, Cotton, and Thread,” Nova Contemporary, Bangkok
  • “Designing Informality: Inhabitable Chariots for Daily Rituals,” H Gallery, Bangkok
  • “Mit Jai Inn: Beautiful Futures,” H Gallery, Bangkok
  • “Pericles Boutos: Present – Official Function,” Kathmandu Photo Gallery, Bangkok
  • “Prawit Lumcharoen: Sick Boy เด็กห่วย,” Number 1 Gallery, Bangkok

may 16–31, 2018

Books

  • René Daumal, A Night of Serious Drinking, translated by David Coward & E. A. Lovatt
  • Michel Tournier, Friday, trans. Norman Denny
  • Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
  • J. M. Coetzee, Foe
  • Primo Levi, If This Is a Man, trans. Stuart Woolf

Exhibits

  • “(Re)collect: The Making of Our Art Collection,” National Gallery Singapore
  • Borobudur, Indonesia
  • Prambanban, Indonesia
  • Taman Sari, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
  • “Artjog 2018”, National Museum of Yogyakarta, Indonesia

may 1–15, 2018

Books

  • Deborah Eisenberg, Your Duck Is My Duck
  • Italo Calvino, Into the War, translated by Martin McLaughlin
  • Italo Calvino, The Road to San Giovanni, trans. Tim Parks
  • Erri De Luca, The Day Before Happiness, trans. Jill Foulston
  • Erri De Luca, Me, You, trans. Beth Archer Brombert
  • Carlo Levi, Essays on India, trans. Antony Shugaar
  • Kushanava Choudhury, The Epic City: The World on the Streets of Calcutta
  • Amit Chaudhuri, Odysseus Abroad
  • Alessandro Barrico, City, trans. Ann Goldstein
  • Robert Yeo, The Adventures of Holden Heng
  • Hwee Hwee Tan, Mammon Inc.
  • Emmanuel Carrère, I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, trans. Timothy Bent
  • Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal
  • Amélie Nothomb, Sulphuric Acid, trans. Shaun Whiteside
  • Roger Lewinter, Story of Love in Solitude: Eros Orpheus Eurydice, trans. Rachel Careau

Films

  • They Live by Night, directed by Nicholas Ray
  • অরণ্যের দিনরাত্রি (Days and Nights in the Forest), dir. Satyajit Ray
  • Visages Villages (Faces Places), dir. Agnès Varda & JR
  • Christmas in Connecticut, dir. Peter Godfrey

Exhibits

  • “Tromp l’Œil,” Sullivan + Strumpf
  • “Zai Kuning,” Ota Fine Arts Singapore
  • “Lingering Manifestations,” PearlLam Galleries
  • “Pupuk Daru Purnomo: Second Chance,” Mizuma Gallery
  • “Hu Jieming & Hu Weiyi: Imagination Is Reality,” Shanghart Gallery
  • “Edward Clydesdale Thomson & Mike HJ Chang: The Body and the Seed,” Yeo Workshop
  • “Ronald Apriyan: The Metropolis,” Element Art Space

april 16–30, 2018

Books

  • Eric Kraft, Albertine’s Overcoat
  • Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency
  • Balli Kaur Jaswal, Inheritance
  • Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other
  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes
  • Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer
  • Massimo Riva, editor, Italian Tales: An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Fiction
  • Primo Levi, If Not Now, When?, translated by William Weaver
  • Chester Himes, The Crazy Kill
  • Annie Ernaux, Cleaned Out, trans. Carol Sanders

april 1–15, 2018

Books

  • Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman
  • Susan Howe, Debths
  • Dino Buzzati, Catastrophe, translated by Judith Landry, Cynthia Jolly & E. R. Low
  • Harry Mathews, The Solitary Twin
  • Roger Grenier, Palace of Books, trans. Alice Kaplan
  • Mark E. Smith & Mick Muddles, Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E. Smith
  • Anna Maria Ortese, Neapolitan Chronicles, trans. Ann Goldstein & Jenny McPhee

It’s nice to have more Ortese in print in English, though I can’t help thinking this cynically retitled Il mare non bagna Napoli obscures what’s most interesting about her as a writer, instead casting her as a slightly wonky neorealist forbear to Ferrante. The translation isn’t substantively different from the 1955 Francis Frenaye translation, though the text is slightly more complete and contextual notes explain who the Neapolitan literati were. But the reader of this might reasonably imagine that Ortese died after this work, rather than going on to write her much more interesting later novels and stories; this does Ortese a disservice.

  • R. K. Narayan, The Guide

Films

  • The Disaster Artist, directed by James Franco
  • Harpya, dir. Raoul Servais
  • Labirynt, dir. Jan Lenica
  • Tango, dir. Zbigniew Rybczyński
  • The League of Gentlemen, dir. Basil Deardon
  • A Quiet Place, dir. John Krasinski
  • The Naked Truth, dir. Mario Zampi
  • I Am Not Your Negro, dir. Raoul Peck
  • Lifeforce, dir. Tobe Hooper
  • Fantastic Voyage, dir. Richard Fleischer

Exhibits

  • “Tarek Atoui: The Ground: From the Land to the Sea,” NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore
  • “Michael Lee: Creatif Compleks,” NTU CCA
  • “The Institute of Critical Zoologists: Final Report of the Christmas Island Expert Working Group,” NTU CCA
  • “Marcin Dudek: Sovereign Heads,” Yeo Workshop
  • “Khairullah Rahm: The Incredible Frolic,” Yavuz Gallery
  • “Wai Teik: Offerings,” Chan + Hori Contemporary
  • “Spring Highlights,” Sundaram Tagore Singapore
  • “Dinh Q. Lê: Monuments and Memorials,” STPI
  • “Zai Kuning: Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge,” Theatreworks

march 15–31, 2017

Books

  • Ross Macdonald, Meet Me at the Morgue
  • Alfian Sa’at, Malay Sketches
  • Cyril Wong, Let Me Tell You Something about That Night: Strange Tales
  • Ross Macdonald, The Dark Tunnel
  • U. R. Ananthamurthy, Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man, translated by A. R. Ramanujan
  • Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. Sarah Ruden
  • Ross Macdonald, Trouble Follows Me
  • Théophile Gautier, My Fantoms, trans. Richard Holmes
  • Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means

Films

  • A Wrinkle in Time, directed by Ava DuVernay
  • Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht (If I Think of Germany at Night), dir. Romuald Karmakar
  • The Death of Stain, dir. Armando Iannucci

Exhibits

  • “Challenging Beauty: Insights into Italian Contemporary Art,” The Parkview Museum
  • “Wee Hong Ling: In Flux,” The Private Museum
  • “Rediscovering Forgotten Thai Masters Of Photography,” NUS Museum
  • “Buaya: The Making of a Non-Myth,” NUS Museum
  • “Always Moving: The Batik Art of Sarkasi Said,” NUS Museum

1–15 march, 2017

Books

  • Leonardo Sciascia, A Simple Story, translated by Howard Curtis
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Authority
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Acceprance
  • Simon Tay, Stand Alone
  • Arthur Yap, Noon at Five O’Clock: The Collected Short Stories
  • Alfian Sa’at, The Corridor
  • Ross Macdonald, The Ivory Grin
  • Robert Yeo, The Singapore Trilogy

Films

  • The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro
  • It’s Always Fair Weather, dir. Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
  • Dead of Night, dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden & Robert Hamer

Galleries

  • “Gianni Piacentino: Works 1966–2017,” Partners & Mucciaccia
  • “Eguchi Ayane: Ode to Wonderland,” Mizuma Gallery
  • “Nobuaki Takekawa: Cat Olympics: In Memory of Torajiro,” Ota Fine Arts
  • “Faisal Habibi: Fillet,” Sullivan+Strumpf
  • “Angela Chong: Else,” Chan+Hori Contemporary
  • “Goh Abigail: Continuations (and Rests) Between Spaces,” Chan+Hori Contemporary
  • “Lui Hock Seng: Passing Time,” Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film
  • “A Study in South-East Asian Artworks,” Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

16–28 february, 2018

Books

  • Pritham K. Chakravarthy & Rakesh Khanna, eds., The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Volume 2
  • Azareen Van der Vleet Oloomi, Call Me Zebra
  • Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge
  • Evan S. Connell, Mr. Bridge
  • Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God
  • Boris Vian, Autumn in Peking, translated by Paul Knobloch

Films

  • The Big Clock, directed by John Farrow
  • Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig
  • Meet Me in St. Louis, dir. Vincente Minnelli

1–15 february, 2018

Books

  • Raduan Nassar, Ancient Tillage, translated by K. S. Sotelino
  • Jim Thompson, The Killer Inside Me
  • John Waters, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America
  • Pramoedya Ananta Toer, It’s Not an All Night Fair, trans. C. W. Watson
  • John Waters, Crackpot
  • Satyajit Ray, The Mystery of Monroe Island and Other Stories, trans. Indrani Majumdar
  • Gita Mehta, Karma Cola: Marketing the Mystic East
  • R. K. Narayan, The Man-Eater of Malgudi

Exhibits

  • “Kim Lim: Sculpting Light,” STPI, Singapore
  • Government Museum, Chennai, India
  • India Art Fair, New Delhi, India
  • “Anja Dodiya: The Air Is a Mill of Hooks,” Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, India
  • “A Search in Five Directions: Textiles from the Vishwakarma Exhibitions,” National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, New Delhi, India
  • “Dhanraj Bhagat 1917–1988: Journey from the Physical to the Spiritual,” National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, India
  • “In the Seeds of Time,” National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, India