Interviews October 2003

Living Under War's Shadow

A conversation with James Carroll, whose new novel, Secret Father, explores the political and emotional divisions of post-war Germany
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Secret Father

Secret Father
[Click the title
to buy this book] by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin
344 pages, $25

The seed idea for Secret Father, James Carroll's newest novel, was planted more than four decades ago when the author was seventeen years old. The son of an Air Force officer stationed in West Germany, the teenaged Carroll slipped away one weekend to an auto race in Berlin. He and his American friends boarded a U.S. Army train that halted at the East German border. Despite warnings from the onboard guards, Carroll could not resist raising his window shade at the sensitive checkpoint and pressing the lens of a movie camera against the glass. Within moments, a large American military policeman stormed into the compartment, followed closely by a Soviet officer toting a machine gun. The soldiers barked at the American teenagers, snatching away Carroll's camera and exposing the film. Then they left the compartment, and the train rolled on into the postwar wasteland of East Germany.

It took the thaw of the Cold War for this early-life experience to sprout into a novel. Secret Father reaches back to 1960s Germany, the tense time and place of Carroll's youth, but its vantage point is firmly rooted in the present. The story's two narrators—a father and son who tell the story in alternating sections—recall events from their mutual past after visiting newly reunified Berlin. Carroll creates the son, Michael Montgomery, partly in his own image: a student at an American high school in Germany, we later glimpse Montgomery returning to the United States, playing an active role in 1960s politics, and becoming a successful author who writes about the Holocaust as Carroll did in his 2001 book Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. Unlike the author, Michael has suffered from polio at a young age and spends his teenage years in leg braces. His disability only heightens his fierce need for independence from his father, Paul, a World War II veteran with a successful career at the Chase Manhattan office in Frankfurt.

The novel's frantic three-day action begins in the spring of 1961, when Paul discovers that his son is missing from the H. H. Arnold High School in Wiesbaden. Oblique remarks by a school official send Paul to the home of General David Healy, the stepfather of Michael's classmate Rick. Before long, it is clear that the two boys have run off to Berlin with a girl named Kit and have stumbled into a matter of "national security." General Healy offers no further information, but his wife, Charlotte, a beautiful German-born aristocrat, is willing to meet Paul in secret and join forces with him to rescue their children.

When Michael takes over the narration, a parallel story unfolds: the tale of a young man questioning the patriotic, capitalist values that define his father's world. Michael's friend Rick is a bearded proto-hippie, a charismatic intellectual enchanted by Karl Marx and the leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse. In an act of defiance against his vapid sock-hopping classmates and his Air Force stepfather, Rick has reassumed his original German name, Ulrich. His biological father, Charlotte's former lover, is a German professor named Wolf von Seidelheim who disappeared mysteriously during the war.

In many respects, Secret Father is a classic Cold War story, complete with spies, interrogations, a tragic European woman, and a canister of secret film. What gives the novel depth is its smudged moral divide between East and West. The Berlin that Carroll describes still smells of cinder and ash from the Allied bombings of World War II—it is a defeated world where no absolute villains or heroes remain. American idealism does not always prove invincible, and characters with Communist leanings are not necessarily misguided. When Paul journeys across the Spree River, crossing over from West to East Berlin, the flashy capitalism of one bank and the gray pallor of the other appear equally surreal:

We had a clear view down the length of the opulent shopping street, the Kurfurstendamm.... The sidewalks were a riot of colorful café umbrellas and awnings.... The neon displays, illuminated even at midday, were not nearly the kaleidoscope they would be at night, but for that they were a more outrageous assertion of Western extravagance.... Now the train careened onto a timber-and-rod trestle bridge, crossing the muddy Spree.... It seemed less a geographic boundary than a temporal one, for all of a sudden the view was of the yawning jaggedness of bombed-out buildings, ruins, and rubble of the sort cleared in the West fully a decade before....

Secret Father is Carroll's first novel since 1994, and traces of his recent nonfiction work surface throughout its pages. Carroll is a former priest and still a devout Catholic, and the moral and historical issues he raised in Constantine's Sword play a quiet background role in Secret Father. Carroll also writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe, and the political views he expresses in newsprint can be found between the lines of his newest novel.

But Secret Father is most of all an exploration of the relationships between fathers and sons, and each such story in the book in some way echoes Carroll's 1996 memoir An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us. Carroll lives in Boston with his wife, Alexandra Marshall, and their two children, Elizabeth and Patrick.

I spoke to him by telephone on September 9.


James Carroll
James Carroll   

It's been nine years since your last work of fiction was published. In the meantime, you've written two extremely personal nonfiction books: An American Requiem, about your father, and Constantine's Sword, about your Church. How did it feel, after such intense soul searching, to tell the stories of fictional characters again?

It's interesting you ask that. One of the big differences for me is the free play of the mind that comes with fiction. That's both the joy of it and the difficulty of it. When you're dealing with nonfiction—even though one is always working imaginatively—the mind is bound by the strictures of fact, of things as they were.

In nonfiction, the boundaries one works within can be liberating and truly enlightening. But with fiction, there's a completely different freedom at play. That's the challenge: to go deeper and deeper and deeper into the world of what's unknown. I think an analogy with psychoanalysis is not necessarily misplaced, the way in which free association—and the emphasis is on "free"—leads to insight and discovery and recognition. That's the great pleasure of fiction, and it was a great relief to me to return to it.

Secret Father begins at H. H. Arnold, the American high school you yourself attended in Wiesbaden, Germany. Which of the characters did you most resemble at that time? Were you a left-wing revolutionary like Ulrich, or a sensitive Rilke lover like Michael—or were you one of the football-playing kids in the background of this story?

I was a wanna-be football player. I was on the football team, but I wasn't really good enough to make much of an impact on the field. The truth is, I wasn't much like either of those kids. Both of them represent pieces of the person I evolved into.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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