Fire Answers Fire
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How would you react if you came across evidence tying your grandfather to the burning of the Hindenburg in 1937?
A cryptic 75-year-old letter leads to a large trove of German-language notebooks that a well-loved upstate New York radio and television repairman left to his granddaughter, an artist and gallery owner. As these boxes of handwritten documents are translated into English, they reveal a young man, living under a different name, intimately connected with the Zeppelin. After emigrating to America for political reasons, he and his German girlfriend use their knowledge for political ends in an increasingly violent world. The notebooks also describe his run-ins with New York's Nazi Bund leader Fritz Kuhn and his relationship with the left-wing expressionist playwright Ernst Toller, who worked with him on a dramatized version of the Hindenburg’s explosion -- the lost and unproduced play "Fire Answers Fire."
In addition to the personal relationship that develops between the narrator and the granddaughter in the present, there is an opportunity for their conversations to explore questions of political language – especially the contentious language of war and terrorism. The secrets the grandfather leaves hidden in the past -- about the woman he loved and left behind in Germany and the woman he loved and married in the States -- become as important as the secrets he reveals in the notebooks.
This book can be read as a straightforward historical novel about the adventures of a young expatriate German in New York City in the late 1930s, but it is also a book about memory, names, language, labels, and the hazy boundaries between fact and fiction.
Good story of German-Americans in PreWWII New York
"Fire Answers Fire" tells the story of a contemporary scholar translating the diaries of a young German immigrant living in New York in the late 1930's. It switches back and forth from the present -- where the scholar, actually a disgraced academic, and the immigrant's granddaughter share the piecemeal translations -- to the past, where the fictional young man mixes with real historic figures such as American Nazi leader Fritz Kuhn and German ex-patriot playwright Ernst Toller. The story unfolds not so much like a mystery (we all know what happens), but more like a personal history as the woman in the present comes to know the hidden traumas that shaped her beloved grandfather.
There's a lot of obvious love of language, literature, and history here. I particularly enjoyed the author's occasional dig at the crumbling edifice that is scholarly publishing today. Mumma has done his homework and evokes a vivid sense of 1937 Upper West Side Manhattan, thick with the culture of Germans pulled between old and new world sensibilities. The split between those who feel remote pride at the rising power of the Fatherland and those who deplore Nazi atrocities is depicted believably, as is the main character's seething, silent hatred for what has become of his country. It's easy to sympathize with Hans Hartung, the immigrant who will eventually abandon his heritage to become the grandfatherly American Jimmy Cobbet, even when his judgments seem questionable.
Therein lies the heart of the book: an opportunity Hartung seizes to strike at Hitler. I won't spoil it -- though it's hardly a surprise, given the timeline -- except to say I was disappointed in how plainly it was rendered. An indelible moment in history is recounted here from Hartung's perspective with an almost total lack of passion. It seems as if the author felt reluctant to add drama to an already dramatic event. That's one approach, I suppose, but it creates a bit of a let-down when the thing you've been waiting for comes not with a bang but a whimper. Still, the novel's sense of time and place, the believability of the historic characters, and the satisfying connection between the contemporary characters provide more than enough reading pleasure to make the book worthwhile.
All in all, an interesting and enjoyable novel -- Mumma's first, according to his endnote. In his subsequent efforts, I hope he finds a way to add some more emotional fire to his careful craftsmanship. Robert Frost once said, "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader." Here's hoping Mr. Mumma goes on to surprise himself.