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Secret Father by James Carroll


Rating: (Recommended)


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James Carroll returns to fiction with his latest novel, Secret Father. Written with two narrators, the structure of the book involves the revelation of what really happened to a trio of teens in Berlin just before the wall was erected. Readers can count on Carroll to delve into multiple levels of meaning and understanding as the story unfolds. The deep bonds between fathers and sons, as well as their deep conflicts becomes revealed through memorable characters. At times, Carroll can become too preachy, and the multiple narrators aren’t really differentiated in voice. They bring separate perspectives, recollections and memories. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 4 (pp. 67-70):

What my father saw in me as need was simple readiness. Yet I am now a little past the age that he was then. I have my own grown children, and I begin to see things from his side as well as mine. Teenagers have a way of making parents both wise and crazy, and so, naturally, my own teenage years look different now. In my case, alas, the crazy reasons to worry were real. If my youthful naivete had been only that, but the context made my actions thoughtless   beyond   measure,   and   if  they   had   ended   tragically;   they would have been unforgivable. For a long time, they did seem so. It was only your father, before he died, who made a final forgiveness possible; only he, given what had happened, who could have offered it — to himself as much as to me and Kit. Someone had said to the three of us, "Don't you be the thing that brings a hair-triggered weapon out of its holster." But we were that thing.

My father and I are alike in understanding history as the frame within which our quite personal story unfolds. We are telling it all these decades later because once again Berlin has been in the news, beginning with the long-overdue breach of the Wall that brought us all together again. The Wall went up, in the first place, not long after the fateful two days in which everything happened.

Oddly, the literal breakthrough of the Wall on November 9, 1989, the end of an era if ever there was one, occurred on the fifty-first anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Nazi savaging of Jewish shops and synagogues. I say oddly because Kristallnacht was of course the beginning of the era, but also because, speaking personally, the Shoah and what led up to it has been a focus of my work. I write for the Atlanta Constitution, and have published three books on politics and history, the most recent an account of artworks stolen from Jews, how the great museums of the world took full advantage of the genocide.

I am conditioned, perhaps, to see the shadow of that past everywhere, and so, regarding Berlin, the coincidence of dates struck me less as odd than as inevitable. The flukes of history make us love it, but also fear it. That first diabolical Novemberfest seemed fittingly reversed when hundreds of thousands of young Germans, grandchildren of the perpetrators, took to the streets to smash not glass but drab concrete. They danced on both sides of the Brandenburg Gate, monument to Prussian glory. But Prussian glory had been swamped by the twentieth century, which only goosed the frenzied happiness of the young democrats who scaled the Wall, of the accidental graffiti artists who splashed the cement barrier with whatever paint came to hand, an anarchy of color released upon the gray monotony of a prison that had passed itself off as half a city.

The destruction of the Berlin Wall, as it happened, was also the destruction of a wall in my memory, the events that divided our lives into the before and after of who viewers and who we became. And because your father was there with us at the start, helping to create the people we are, it is crucial that you know of him as he was, taking this remembrance as a measure of what he then accomplished with his life. We misunderstood his reaction all those years ago, thinking it foolish, when, as history shows, it was noble.

You were too young last year ever to have your own memory of the Wall coming down, so let me tell you. Tens of thousands of men and women rushed through the hole that opened when the Volkspolizei chose not to fire at the first doofus to hoist himself up to the ledge atop the Wall, jitterbugging and calling back to those who'd egged him on, "Aufkmnmen.'Atfflwmmen!" Within days, the once omnipotent Erich Honecker resigned as East German party chief, Hungary and Czechoslovakia declared their borders open, and Mikhail Gorbachev, watching from Moscow, shrugged. And once again, after the rude interruption that lasted three decades, the massive tectonic shift from East to West resumed, the largest movement of people ever to occur in Europe.


That movement had begun in 1944, with the mad flight of panicked Prussians, Silesians, and Sudaten Germans ahead of the onrushing Red Army. “Feet,” as they say in Atlanta, “do your thing.” At war’s end, the migration quickened as if the central plain of Europe had tilted on its side from the Urals toward the Atlantic, spilling westward women, children, and what men survived. Between 1945 and one night in August 1961, almost five million Germans fled from the East through Berlin, the boldest of them marching under that same chariot-crowned Brandenburg Gate. The gate was the emblematic transit point marking the continental divide, but at the time of our May Day visit to the city, a few weeks before the Wall went up, there were something like eighty places where the momentous border crossing could be made. I read later that three thousand East Germans, mostly young and skilled, were then making it every day.

After August 13, there were seven crossing places in Berlin, and they were ruthlessly controlled by Vopos whose authority was as absolute  as  the  armor  of Soviet  tanks with  engines  idling  not  far  away. Republikflucht was defined as a major crime against the Socialist state, and guards were authorized to prevent flight by shooting to kill, which they did more than two hundred times.

The Wall became the defining symbol of the Cold War, for us in the West as well as for your people. In the rhetoric of Western leaders from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, it was simply evil. Yet to citizens throughout Berlin, beginning early on, the hulking concrete and wire construction, running 103 miles through the city and in a full circle around its western half, was informally known as the Peace Wall. Your father told me that at the time of our reunion. In the West, there would be a journalistic obsession with the "death strip" as the very symbol of demonic totalitarianism, but in fact the barrier represented a practical solution to a vastly destabilizing problem. The Wall stopped the East-West refugee flow in its tracks, effectively saving the eastern provinces of the nation for an eventually reunited Germany, while defusing the terrifying confrontation that had turned Berlin into the Cold War "flashpoint." In one day, each side implicitly redefined its commitment in Berlin, with the Soviets yielding their claim to the whole city and with the Allies equally abandoning the East. The Wall did this. If the Soviets had not thrown it up, there were reason why the Americans could have. Indeed, despite all their public protests, Americans not only valued the Soviet Wall, but had, in deep secret, encouraged it. What a country.

That surface enemies were subtle partners in maintaining what was necessary for peace is one of the great untold stories of the Cold War — and it is the hidden assumption of the story my father has begun, and that I pick up. The clandestine collusion between Washington and Moscow eluded us at the time, of course, but it was very much to the point of what happened when I joined Ulrich as a counter-refugee, bucking the flow to go from West to East. What know-it-alls we were. We knew nothing.

Subtle collusion between Washington and Moscow does not mean that their confrontations were less than terrifying, and the spring and summer of 1961 were, until the Cuban missile crisis the following year, the worst of it. It is hard to remember now, with Russia in social and economic free fall, but m those days the Kremlin seemed the center of a nation of evil geniuses .At the slightest whim of their madness, so we felt, they could blow us to smithereens. Only weeks before we took off for Berlin from Wiesbaden, for example, the Soviets had demonstrated their superiority by launching the first man into space. The name Yuri Gagarin was on everyone's lips that month. And only weeks later, Nikita Khrushchev would humiliate John Kennedy at their summit in Vienna. A shaken Kennedy came home from that encounter to announce on television it was time to build bomb shelters— a month's anticipation of the drab concrete of the Wall, but this concrete was to be poured in the cellars of American schools, factories, places of business, and homes. For the first time, a U.S. president was openly warning of nuclear attack, and in response, we the people began to stock Up on canned goods. "Berlin is the testicles of the West," Khrushchev declared. "When I want to make the West scream, I squeeze."

Secrets that were kept are revealed. A legacy is passed along from one generation to another. Understanding develops over time, and with perspective. All these insights and more can be savored in Secret Father.

Steve Hopkins, September 23, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the October 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Father.htm


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