By Laksiri Fernando –
“We cannot exist without our histories; they are what define us. But my history was a lie.” – ‘James Meisenheimer’
This is not about Barack Obama or Mitt Romney who fiercely compete each other these days to show the American voters who the ‘good American’ is leading to the forthcoming presidential elections in November. Neither it is about the ‘American identity’ directly, as discussed by late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard in his “Who Are We” published in 2004. This is about an amazing historical novel by Alex George published this year, a few months ago, as his first. It is a universal story of immigrants, or humans in general, enmeshed as it is with the American history of the twentieth century.
The story proper begins “one evening in the early summer of 1904” in Hanover, Germany, when Jette declares to Frederick that they have to ‘do something’ as her revengeful mother has discovered her secret pregnancy from ‘this bastard of low breed.’ It is a feudal issue. “I don’t think we have much choice, Frederick sighed, America it is.” It is a free country, at least at that time.
They embark on the Copernicus in Bremen with some stolen money and ‘gold medal’ from Jett’s parents. They wanted to go to New York that they know of, but it goes to New Orleans, “what’s the difference? They’re both New. That’s good enough.”
They go without any English or knowing where they go, “free as birds.” They get married in the ship officiated by the Captain. Frederick wanted to be ‘a good American’ and strike a deal with a cunning bartender in the ship to learn English, and cram some Polish instead! The story is extremely funny at times, apart from being sad and sensational most of the time. The expressions Frederick learns from the bartender include:
Let me give you a large tip. I like big mustaches. My wife is a witch, you know. I am a German Idiot.
After disembarking in New Orleans, they begin a journey up the Mississippi to St. Louis in the Great Republic. Now they have a destination, given vaguely by another passenger to find some employment in Rocheport. It is still a long way. After the bad experience of the bartender, they find some good help on arrival from Lomax (the black man) and Dr Joseph Wall. In fact he is not Wall, but Walinowski from Poland who has changed the name which he now considers ‘the biggest mistake.’ He gives the first lesson to the Meisenheimers on immigration and multi-culturalism.
“If I may give you some advice. Learn the language, but don’t ever change your name. This is a land of immigrants. I don’t just mean you and me. I mean everyone. We all came here from somewhere.”
Perhaps this is the idea of Alex George, the author, and not just Joseph Wall. This is different to Samuel P. Huntington who, as a conservative political scientist, argued in his “Who Are We” that the core of the American identity is the ‘settler identity’ and the later immigrants should integrate into. The whole story of “A Good American” is based on a different perspective where all immigrants make a contribution, good or bad, to the evolving American identity.
On their way to Rocheport, Jette breaks waters in a small town called Beatrice and delivers their first progeny Joseph, Joseph Meisenheimer. It is a town with many Germans where they find home. The concept of ‘HOME’ is very central to the story.
The full story can’t be and shouldn’t be related. It is 400 pages and 47 chapters. Some glimpses may be warranted. Frederick, the good American is a hard worker. First he works at the town’s only tavern, the Nick-Nack, and then he owns it. But the matter is concealed from Jette, as he accumulates money from betting on his friend, Johann Kliever’s prize-fights. There is more to the keeping of ‘secrets’ in the story by almost everyone.
The story is related by a third generation Meisenheimer, James. He believes or we believe until the very end of the story that he is the ‘second born’ to Joseph and Cora. But he is born to his ostensible Aunt, Rosa, and illusive Stefan Kliever who vanishes from the town even before the baby is born. Like many other secrets in the story there is no particular reason why ‘this secret’ is a secret. The intimate connection between Rosa and James is depicted as the ‘plight of the second borns’ or normal between an aunt and a nephew.
Rosa is “the first true American of the Meisenheimer brood, both conceived and delivered on this soil.” As James records,
“From her first breath my aunt drew on a seemingly limitless well of dissatisfaction. The slightest disappointment provoked screams of staggering ferocity. Her fury quickly acquired its own devastating momentum, and there was nothing her parents could do but wait for her to yell herself to a standstill.”
The above paragraph gives a sense of language in the novel, at times tedious. There are many more interesting characters that you come across in the story. Frederick guides the ‘American way;’ voluntarily joins the army as an awkward ‘elder’ to fight against the ‘Germans’ in the First World War and gets killed by a ‘German sniper.’ There is a rupture of relationship between him and Jette.
“Jette, I have to go and fight.”
“But we need you here.”
“Oh, let’s not pretend. You don’t need me for anything.”
That is the last conversation between them. Is it ‘patriotism’ or personal frustration? It is a matter for the reader to decide.
Lomax turns up at Nick-Nack by accident or divine providence and helps the Meisenheimer family going by converting the tavern into a restaurant after the Prohibition (of liquor) in 1920. Joseph thereafter takes up the business and then James. The family survives the Great Depression, the floods of Mississippi and several epidemics of diseases. The lynching of Lomax is the saddest to the family and for the readers alike. Jette is the most affected. The Second World War does not disturb the family much like the First, but Jette is affected in her conscience.
War and Music
Jette is the conscience of the story, and perhaps all of us (if sensible and intelligent). Jette inherits a gold medal that her grandfather received from Kaiser for leading the Prussian troops against the French at Spichern in 1870 travelling on a hot-air balloon! “It was tethered to the ground. From the air he could follow the fighting better. He would bellow instructions down to the command post below,” the story says.
“Jette thought of her grandfather, directing his troops to slaughter from the safety of his ridiculous balloon. She realized then that nothing would ever change. Men would repeat the same stupid mistakes again and again, slowly wiping themselves off the planet.
Like the ‘war-medal’ given by Kaiser, there is another symbol in the story. That is Lomax’s Cornet. A Cornet is a brass musical instrument very similar to the trumpet but much mellower in tone. This symbol is about Music of Life. After lynching Lomax, Stefan, in fact James father takes it away to New York. James recovers it when he goes to find his stepbrother in Eastport in 1986. In between there are so many events rolling.
“Always there was music.” That is the first sentence of the story. Then it follows. “It was music – Puccini, to be precise – that first drew my grandparents into each other’s orbit, more than a hundred years ago.”
The story ends in 2009 when Joseph Meisenheimer dies at the age of 105, “a ridiculous age, although not, apparently, to him.” He leaves precise instructions as to how he wishes to be remembered. There is to be no fuss, no grand memorial. All he wants, in the end, is his four sons to ‘Sing.’ He was “A Good American,” the story says, but perhaps unlike Barack Obama or Mitt Romney today. The following is what struck me most in the novel. James after realizing that he is not the son of Cora but Rose says,
“We cannot exist without our histories; they are what define us. But my history was a lie.”
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