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Atlantic Unbound | October 1, 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


Secret Father

Secret Father
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin
344 pages, $25

he 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.

—Jennie Rothenberg

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.

There was, in fact, nobody at my school like Ulrich. I'd never heard of leftist philosophers like Herbert Marcuse. In the novel, the senior year is 1961. That's so I could have the story unfold while the Berlin Wall was coming. My senior year was actually 1960, which was also tense in Berlin. The so-called Berlin crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union began in the spring of 1960, when Khrushchev was forcing Eisenhower to worry about what he was going to do in Berlin. And that same spring there was a big political crisis when the U2 spy plane was shot down by the Soviets.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the book is based on an experience you had during a train ride to Berlin that spring.

Exactly. That did happen. Only there was no canister of secret film. But I had a little movie camera that I'd taken without permission from my father. I was going with some chums to an automobile race, the Grand Prix of Germany...

...which is where the teenagers are supposedly running off to when we first find out they're missing.

That was in fact what I was doing. We were going without permission. I put the lens of my father's movie camera under the shade, and that's what prompted the military policemen to storm into our compartment and frighten us to death. That's all that came of it. The MP actually opened my movie camera and exposed the film so the Soviet guards behind him could see it was exposed.

Not so long after that I began to harbor the ambition of becoming a writer. I've always known, all these years, that some day I would write a story that took off from that moment, just because it lived so vividly in my memory.

Why did it take so long for this story to emerge?

I guess it was only with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that I began to get a feeling for the whole story. A few years ago, I realized that that moment in 1961 is the beginning of a story that ends in 1989. That's why it was important for me to have the narrators telling the story from the point of view of 1990.

You focus a lot of attention on evoking atmosphere in Secret Father. In the West, you describe glittering skyscrapers and Bauhaus chrome furniture. In the East, you show us bombed-out churches and carts without wheels. Which of these is supposed to be our reference point, "the real world"?

For me, of course, most of it is imagined. I'm trying to learn from descriptions of the time. But a certain amount is based on memory, because I was, in fact, a young man living in Germany during that period. One of the things I paid attention to was the way in which post-World War II Germany was governed by a modern sensibility. It was as if the past had been so traumatic and had led to such a dead end that artistic sensibility required the destruction of it. You didn't see buildings built in the traditional style. The great preference was for the so-called modern style that had actually begun to show up in the twenties and thirties but really came into its own as a kind of mass taste after the war.

In the eastern sectors of Germany, Soviet-dominated Germany, there was always the desperate attempt to show opulence and success in a way that could stand in comparison with the West. But it was always a kind of shallow false-frontery, because there was no economic substance behind it. I remember, for example, those stunning "modern" buildings along Stalinallee in East Berlin that were like a Hollywood front, quite powerfully so. At each corner, you could look behind these new buildings and see acres and acres of rubble.

The Germans in Secret Father seem to have complex feelings toward Americans. Their discomfort comes through in the silence when the American students enter a café, in the cold obedience of the servants, in the extra obsequiousness of a business associate. Having lived there at the time, how do you think West Germans in the 1960s really felt about the American soldiers and bankers who were rebuilding their country?

There's no doubt that an occupied people are tremendously ambivalent toward the occupier. And why wouldn't they be? Our occupation was so triumphant. American values, American culture, American sensibility, have infiltrated Europe, even though you still have the sense that there's a culture war going on with the rejection of McDonald's, the rejection of genetically engineered food. When I was a boy, before there was any such thing as McDonald's, I did have the sense that the impoverished Germans were deeply resentful of us.

The American teenagers in Secret Father call each other "comrade" and read Marxist philosophy. Why are they drawn to communist ideals, so much so that they leave the comfort of their capitalist surroundings to join a May Day parade in East Berlin?

The starting point, when you're thinking of Germany, is that the Communists did resist Hitler. When you think of who the heroic resisters in the Nazi period were, the Socialist Democratic Party was at the top of the list. In this novel, Ulrich is quite aware of that. There may still be the temptation that you saw at work in this country in the 1930s to romanticize Stalin, as if he hadn't been guilty of monstrous crimes. And there's a way in which, when I was young, the left was tempted to do that. You saw it certainly in the romanticizing of Chairman Mao, who became a cultural icon for the left in the United States during the Vietnam War, despite his great crimes against humanity.

So I guess I'm working with the naïve idealism of the young. One of the stories at play here is how that idealism gets punctured by the harsh reality of what the political divide represents.

A few weeks ago, you wrote a piece for The Boston Globe called "America's Habit of Revenge." You commented that "there is no 'agonizing reappraisal of fundamental assumptions' in this country," alluding to a quote from the German writer Thomas Mann about the psychological impact of war. Is this what German-born Charlotte is trying to tell the American banker, Paul, in Secret Father when she bursts out, "America is all future, no past. It is difficult for you to understand that here in Germany ... the war is the past that will never go away"?

Exactly. That's the difference between Paul and Charlotte. Paul has not been untouched by suffering and difficulty. He went through World War II as a sailor in the Pacific. He has lost his beloved wife, Edie. And yet the past doesn't have him in its grip nearly the way it does Charlotte. Or he doesn't think so. One of the things this novel does is bring him to the point where the past does have him mercilessly in its grip. We see at the end of the story that he's never broken free of it.

So I'm playing with the difference between Americans and Europeans here. In this country, in Washington, there's a kind of contempt toward the so-called "pacifist" Europeans. Well, there's a reason they were reluctant to go to war in Iraq. They have a more vivid sense of what war involves. Americans can be more blasé about it. For us, the great trauma is 9-11. Grievous as that wound was, it pales in comparison to what was suffered routinely all across Europe during World War II.

After the United States, the two most powerful economies in the world are Germany and Japan. Once they were the two most belligerent nations in the world, and now they're the most pacifistic. Why is that? They've learned the hard way what war leads to. I think we need to learn from them.

There's another image of America that comes through in Secret Father: the soldiers who saved the lives of Berliners by flying food to them across the Soviet blockade. Do you think that aspect of our military tradition is still alive today?

Absolutely. That's the tradition of America that I grew up with. I'm the son of an Air Force officer myself, and I remember the Berlin airlift. It's one of the first things that raised my consciousness. It was a glorious thing that the Berlin airlift represented. The Soviet Union put down a challenge: you can't cross this line. If you do, we'll kill you. And you know what the United States did? They flew over it. I mean, it was fantastic! For more than a year, we supplied the city of Berlin by air—coal, grain, food—it was a fantastic, humane achievement, an alternative to war. That was partly because that generation of American military people knew that you didn't go to war lightly. If we faced such a challenge today, do you think our government would look so creatively for an alternative to war? I don't think so. And yet, that's the best of the American tradition.

Our father's generation did, in fact, go through that whole fifty-year period of the Cold War without giving in to the temptation of going to war with the Soviet Union. And the Soviets did too. It was an enormously dangerous period, and it ended non-violently. What a triumph for the world—containment and patience and constant negotiation. Those are basic American values. One of my criticisms at the present moment is that we've turned our back on them in a terrible way.

That's the way you depict the Cold War in Secret Father, as a kind of cooperation between the superpowers. In the train scene you described earlier, and at many other moments, we see American and Soviet officials putting on carefully timed displays of force or generosity to appease one another. Michael even describes the Berlin Wall as a "wall of peace," a Western concession to prevent a nuclear war.

It's true. There was something of that. It was a very sophisticated dance, so that when the Wall went up, President Kennedy felt obligated to denounce it, but he knew that Khrushchev needed it. He was going to implicitly allow it to stand. That kind of dance led, eventually, to arms negations, arms reductions, treaties, a gradual disarming of the conflict, which was carried out slowly and patiently over many years. That's a very noble story.

I think the big mistake of our time is that we've misunderstood the meaning of the Cold War. A year after the Wall came down, in the State of the Union address, President Bush Sr. said we'd won the Cold War. That isn't the way to think of it at all. If anybody won the Cold War, I'd say it was the people behind the Iron Curtain who brought down the Wall—not with guns and tanks but through a non-violent movement of tremendously courageous passive resistance. Mikhail Gorbachev could have called out tanks at any point against that movement, and he never did. I mean, what a triumph. This was supposed to be the evil empire. And yet, they turned out to be incredibly humane.

We Americans would do well to be more complicated in our attitudes about who the other side is. We lack that subtlety today. George W. Bush has returned to the rhetoric of good and evil. It's a big mistake.

As the title implies, this book is very much about fathers, a theme that has appeared again and again throughout your writing. For Secret Father, you made the interesting decision to shift back and forth between the younger and elder Montgomerys. Did writing from both perspectives give you any new insight into the relationship between fathers and sons?

It did. It was a very good experience for me. I've been a connoisseur my whole writing life of the son's side of the story. But not so many years ago, I became a father myself. I've watched my children grow up. Now I was ready to try to actually tell a story that represented both points of view so that we could feel, I hope with some sympathy, the ferocious worry of the father—but also the way in which that worry is nothing but claustrophobia for the son.

You decided to create Michael as a disabled character who had suffered from polio as a child. Was that to emphasize that dynamic you're describing: the father who feels that his son needs help and the son who wants to break free?

Yes. I didn't want to make the worry simply neurotic. I wanted to suggest that there's something in the biography of this family that makes it reasonable for the father, Paul, to have the habit of worrying about his son. He's been wanting his crippled son to be whole and happy. He's worried about it. Of course, the son is determined not to be treated like a cripple. So the polio becomes a kind of physical emblem of the tension between them.

For me, the most important moment in the novel is in the hearing room in front of the East German officer. Paul assumes he's going to take Michael and Kit away, since Ulrich is the only one in jeopardy. And Michael stands up to him and says, "No." That was Michael's way of accepting jeopardy with his friend and standing up to his father, saying, "Don't you presume to protect me. I don't need to be protected." The revelation is that Michael didn't need his father's help at all.

That's a particularly beautiful scene: Michael looks out the window of the East German interrogation room "to memorize the light, not imagining that it would fade, but understanding that the sky would never look this clear again." In that moment, he says, he knows who he is for the first time. Why does his first experience of true freedom take place in captivity?

That's a very interesting observation. I suppose one could make something of it. I think he was aware of his competence and being centered, even though just about the worst thing imaginable has happened to him. He's maintaining a sense of selfhood. And he's fine.

Imagine Rudolph Giuliani a couple of years ago, an obviously distraught, confused, and sort of lost man—he had very cruelly ended a marriage, foolishly embarked on a personal relationship that was adolescent, was erratic in his political bearing, ran for the Senate, got sick, quit. Who was Rudolph Giuliani? And then, boom! The worst, absolutely the worst thing that could happen happened. And what happened? The clarity, the power, the selfhood, the dignity. Everybody could see it. Very different from what we saw in George W. Bush, I would say.

You often describe politics in near-religious terms. In An American Requiem you refer to "the holy mysteries of Washington" and call presidential inaugurations "sacraments of the streets." This also comes through in Secret Father, particularly when the characters come across a plaque that honors slain Communists as "martyrs." Do you think politics can actually play the role of religion?

Of course. You certainly saw that in the Stalinist Communist period when Stalin himself became a type of God figure. You saw it in China with Mao. But you see it in this country, too—God bless America, the flag, the quasi-religious appeals to patriotism. That rhetoric of good against evil, us against them, is something very religious at the base of American politics today, even though we insist on the separation of church and state.

Religion, when it's at work secretly, is very dangerous. Religious clans that disguise themselves in politics are very dangerous. That's part of the great temptation America faces right now. There's a quasi-religious character to the American war on terrorism. Muslims are right to be alarmed that there may be a kind of religious element to this war.

Do you think spirituality of any kind has a place in government?

I think spirituality—the attention to the other world, to the transcendent—is crucial to life itself. So, of course. I think maturity and happiness presume some attention to what is not able to be seen. Spiritual values inform every human act, every human decision. But we need to understand that religion refers to a special sphere of human experience. And it's important to keep it separate so the people in power don't implicitly impose their religious assumptions on the population.

I was offended, for example, that just after 9-11 there was an official prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. It's a beautiful Gothic cathedral, but it's incredibly Christian. The camera was all over the Christian iconography of the cathedral throughout the service, even while we were trying to reassure the Muslim world that we weren't coming after them. I think Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Jews had a right to be somewhat uncomfortable with that manifestation of American Christian piety.

The holiest day of the year in America is Thanksgiving, because everyone in America can celebrate that holiday. At a moment of grief, we need to find a way to strike a similar note.

In Secret Father, each of the women has a favorite church where she likes to sit and reflect. For Edie, it's a Gothic cathedral near her son's hospital; for Charlotte, it's an onion-domed Russian Chapel in Wiesbaden. And yet you pointedly describe both women as nonreligious. Why, then, do these places of worship play such a significant role in their lives?

What brings them both is grief. In Edie's case, it's grief at the illness of her child. In Charlotte's case, it's grief for the loss of her world. I am at work there, in both instances, on the human attempt to find language and sacred space that will enable us to deal with unbearable suffering. Religion is born of unbearable suffering, I would say.

When Ulrich quotes the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and his famous adage that "happiness is freedom," Michael responds by asking, "How do we actually live when we are free?" Is Michael suggesting that the democracy of America and Western Europe is somehow incomplete, that there's another kind of freedom that isn't yet being lived?

It's a good question. As a seventeen year old, his obsessive concern at that moment is how to live. Besides that, he's puncturing a little bit of Ulrich's high-flown rhetoric. He's both drawn to it and sees through it.

I'm also taking off there on a throwaway remark by Gandhi. Somebody said, "What do you think of Western civilization?" He replied, "I think it would be a good idea." Every great institution is measured against how it's falling short of its own ideals.

I'm a Catholic—the Catholic Church is reeling with this recent scandal. Catholics who were shocked by this were mostly the ones who thought the Catholic Church was perfect. But I have spent a lot of time working on the history of Catholic anti-Semitism. I know this Church isn't perfect. So it isn't, in a way, so shocking to me. The Church has to be measured against its ideals. But it will always fall short. That's true of America. And it's true of one's family. It's true of one's self. There's always a gap between who we are and who we know we ought to be.

You were an activist in America during the Vietnam era. How would you compare the youth counterculture in 1960s Europe with what was going on here?

There was a ferocity to the European story that never quite gripped the Americans. Young people in France formed an alliance with labor unions, and the strikes in France in May of 1968 paralyzed the country and brought down the government. There was no way the youth movement in the United States was ever going to form an alliance with the labor movement. Working-class people disdained, really resented and hated, the counterculture youth, and it was mutual. That's a signal of a lack of political seriousness.

In America, there was enough political edge to the counterculture to stop the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1968. But don't forget what happened. The war went on for another four or five years. It's a scandal that that's true. So my general observation is that the youth movement in Europe in the 1960s had a political force to it that wasn't there in the United States.

Once or twice during Secret Father, we are told that while the characters are having their adventure in Berlin, Adolf Eichmann's trial is going on in Jerusalem. Why did you decide to make this a pointed, if peripheral, part of the story?

It's like a theme of music playing in the background. Because the Holocaust, which is just then being confronted, is the great revelation of the complicity of the West—not just the Nazis—in gross evil. That theme will be played out for the whole rest of the Cold War. It's only when the Cold War ends that people will be able to look more directly at it. It was only in the 1990s, after the Wall came down, that we really looked at the Swiss banks that had the stolen money of Jews, the museums that had the stolen Jewish art, the real estate in Paris that had belonged to Jews, and so forth. And then the Catholic Church began a more serious confrontation with its own history. But that's a process that began with the Eichmann trial.

The artwork that was stolen from the Jews becomes a big focus in Michael's work as an adult. And Ulrich, a committed socialist who stays in East Germany, ends up converting to Judaism and marrying a Jewish woman. Why would Michael and Ulrich—both non-Jewish boys growing up in the 1960s—develop such unusually strong ties to Judaism?

The Holocaust is the great moral reckoning of the era. Ulrich, a German of conscience, is beginning to understand what Germany has done—and we assume he confronts that more and more fully as he grows up, even though we see he's already bothered by it as a boy. I hope that the reader understands—connecting the dots without my having to make it explicit—that his full embrace of Judaism, through presumably having fallen in love with a Jewish woman, is an act of reconciliation.

In Michael's case, coming out of Germany and having been staggered by the loss of his friend, Ulrich, I imagined Michael forever asking himself, "What was that? How did that happen? What are the great questions of complicity and innocence?" Again, for my generation, the Holocaust is the great challenge to one's conscience. I picture Michael as a person for whom that challenge had the same kind of meaning as it had for me.

At the end of Constantine's Sword you recall how, during a family visit to Germany, your children went running in the direction of Hitler's bunker. You were seized by a fierce need to cordon off evil from them and from yourself: "Pat is now going to touch what Hitler touched." Is this also a theme in Secret Father: that children, in their innocence, can lead their parents to the abyss—and that, as Nietzsche put it, the abyss may stare back?

Oh, it's true—I hadn't actually thought of that. You just made me see something. What I felt at that moment is absolutely what Paul and Charlotte feel when they follow their children to Berlin. Absolutely.

Where do Secret Father's two generations stand in relation to one another when the story concludes in 1990? At the end of the book, Paul tells his son he's going to take "a quick snooze, what your generation calls Transcendental Meditation." Is this comment meant to give us any parting insight into the characters and their worlds?

Yes. It shows Paul being a typical man of the World War II generation, not getting it. Meditation looks like a nap to him, whereas someone who is a Transcendental Meditation practitioner would understand its importance—as a source of human rest but also for reaching beyond the mundane. You either get it or you don't.

I think the generations are mysteries to each other. Every human being is a mystery to every other human being on some level. But I think there is a way in which it's important to have a certain humility when we relate to our parents, or when we parents relate to our children. There is something of their experience that will be forever beyond us. We need to have a sense of that.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Jennie Rothenberg has written for the Chicago Tribune and for various Bay Area publications. Her most recent interview for The Atlantic Online was with Harold Bloom.

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