It's Friday, the 13th of September 1940. You are part of a small group of German writers and intellectuals trapped in Vichy France who are highly sought by the Gestapo. Your only hope of escape is to climb through a pass in the Pyrenees from Cerbere into Spain, where you at least have a chance at getting a travel visa to Portugal, and on to New York, with your forged passport.
You climb up the treacherous slippery rock face, nursing several elderly members of your party, such as the Dean of German letters Heinrich Mann, until at last, panting, you reach the top.
Just meters to go until (relative) safety, when out of nowhere appears the gardes mobiles, the paramilitary border guards of a Vichy regime desperate not to displease it's Nazi masters. Submachine guns at the ready, they ask you ominously if you're looking for Spain.
I won't tell you how this story ends, but it's just one of the escapades which literally pack this book from cover-to-cover.
A Quiet American is the Story of New Yorker Varian Fry, and his work in Marseille in 1939-41 with the Emergency Rescue Committee. He was the overseas operative of a committee formed to facilitate the emigration of notable artists and intellectuals endangered by the Nazis from Germany and France. In the process, however, his organization helped over two thousand people escape almost certain death in the Nazi camps, and virtually reinvented America as the world's bastion of art and culture.
While being both a biography and a history book, this one is far from dry. Marino tends to stick to the known facts, and tell the story, letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Some knowlege about the overall milieu and order of events in the early days of the second world war is very useful.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book, though, is the light it sheds on the modus operandi of the US State Department during the period before America entered the war. It is often claimed that America simply did not know what was really going on in Europe, and thus can be excused for it's overlong isolationism. If this book is to be believed, this is simply not true. Instead, the American government seems to have generally regarded Nazism as a "European problem," and seen most prospective refugees as a bunch of Jews that would dirty up our shores. In short, officially sanctioned anti-Semitism was far from the domain of the Nazis alone.
Also heavily implicated is Vichy France, which, led by the cowering and doddering Marshal Petain, went out of it's way to assist the Nazis, and hamper any efforts to protect French culture. This is not a book for those who wish to avoid unpleasant truths.
A Quiet American is published by St. Martin's Press, NY, and is 403 pages long, with bibliography, footnotes and index. It can be purchased online at fatbrain.com.