A Lost Family History: Martin R. Dean’s Meine Väter as a
Model Narrative of Transcultural Self Discovery
Martin R. Dean’s novel Meine Väter explores the protagonist’s ongoing struggle with cultural and internal displacement. The protagonist stems from a multi-cultural family, with his mother being Swiss and his biological father originating from Trinidad. Although he considers himself Swiss, he is regarded as a foreigner by the Swiss community because of his outward appearance, mainly his darker skin tone. By acknowledging his convoluted family history, the narrator can finally begin to question which family members have contributed most to his self understanding rather than pushed him off-course further. Dean challenges the traditional notion of how ‘Swissness’ is defined by calling attention to his diverse identity. Seyhan claims, “The idea of hybridity as a constant of all modes of cultural expression and as the ‘third space’ that enables the emergence of multiple positions, for example, forgoes an analysis of actual social spaces where cultures interact and literature as an institution of cultural memory intervenes (5, Seyhan).” By creating a third space where fact and fiction can coexist, the hybrid identity of the transcultural author can bridge the past and present. Multiple positions suggest the possibility for multiple identities.
The novel is a fictional autobiography insofar as it takes incidents from Dean’s actual life and reorders them to create a “plot”. Recreating his life story as a plot allows the author to come to terms with his multi-cultural, multi-national “identity”. Furthermore, Seyhan states, “In Fictions in Autobiography, Paul John Eakin notes that ‘the writing of autobiography emerges as the second acquisition of language, a second coming into the self, as self-conscious self-consciousness’(Seyhan 88).” The narrator appears to believe there is a true story for him to uncover. “Dadurch, dass man mich und meine wahre Geschichte verleugnete, begann ich, mich selbst zu verleugnen. (Dean 137).” The lies that the protagonist’s family has upheld as a protective measure are finally unraveling.
Dean opens the narrative by confessing that the protagonist Robert is sickly as a result of this missing relationship with his biological father.. Robert’s wife Leonie suggests, “Vielleicht wärst du gesünder, wenn du deine Geschichte kennen würdest (11).” Consequently, he labels his illness “Vatermangel.” This elemental gap of the missing parent pushes the narrator’s curiosity of self as he is convinced that a full understanding of his biological father’s life will result in definite answers about his origin. In order to fully commit to the idea that his father is a man worth knowing, he phantasizes about this unknown figure in a number of ways. “Vierzig Jahre lang war ich der Meinung gewesen, er sei eine Art Märchenprinz mit einem silbernen Stöcklein (9).” The narrator also imagines him to be from a well respected family, with a noble job and an established life. Presenting only positive expectations, Robert does not want to be compared to a man he does not look up to.“Als Kind wollte ich einen Zauberer als Vater. Er musste einen grossen Kopf haben, dazu einen langen Bart und einen Mantel wie ein Zelt. Ich stellte mir vor, dass unter so einem Mantel all das Platz hat, was ich mir wünschte (36).” The narrator’s interest in his father is driven by his own imaginary projections, rather than a genuine curiosity about who his father is. Robert has innocent and idealistic ideologies about a man he has no relationship with.
The ghostly figure of the unknown father haunts the narrator. “Ich nannte ihn den Schattenvater. Es gab diesen Schatten in mir drin, den ich all die Jahre in meiner Vorstellung am Leben erhalten habe (75).” The narrator chases a personal feeling as well as a paternal figure, in which instance both have fused into one, further confusing the construction of his self-image. Through the repression of his longing, the protagonist develops a sense of guilt about his father. The lengthy absence of Ray increases his curiosity and shame. “Warum empfinde ich Rays Zustand, sein Gebrechen, als Ursache einer Schuld, die ich auf mich zu nehmen habe? Logish wäre doch das Gegenteil: Ich, sein Sohn, bin schuldlos an seinem Zustand. Er, der Vater, steht in meiner Schuld (158).” The narrator wishes to see himself as an image of his father. While imagining the meeting with his father, he mentions that “Im Gegensatz zu völliger Glaichheit ist Ähnlichkeit etwas Belebendes; in diesem Augenblick untersuchen wir uns beide nach Übereinstimmungen und Unterschieden in unserem Aussehen (27 Dean).”
Dean postulates that memory and language function as an instrument to uncover the past. Secrets and uncertainties are the gaps that Robert wishes to fill with his father’s memory. Seyhan asserts, “Since memory is an art of construction and reconstruction and thus manipulable, it can be prescribed as both poison and antidote (38).” Ray’s speech and memory loss represent the impossible identity construction that the protagonist has to conquer by finding an alternate method. Robert places an enormous dependence on his father. The disappointment of the mute father is practically inevitable since the protagonist’s expectations are unrealistic and predominantly childish. He exclaims, “Plötzlich bricht’s aus mir hearus: Ich hasse ihn! Ich will keinen Vater. Nicht diesen (60).” In a lesser extreme example, the narrator shows compassion and is attempting to understand his father’s condition. “Erneut wird mir bewusst, wie Ray in seinem Körper eingesperrt ist. Wie ihm der Schrecken unter die Haut genäht ist. Erinnerungen, die noch immer Schmerzen (120).”
The act of speech has been robbed from Ray through a shocking and traumatizing experience in Trinidad. The narrator perceives this obstacle as the worst case scenario. “Ohne Sprache höre ich selber auf zu existieren (41).” A particularly problematic position for the narrator, as he parallels his own needs with those of his father. Ray’s memory loss functions as a healing method just in the same way that language heals the narrator. After a traumatic experience, the author suggests that some memories are better left in the dark. The almost redeeming nature of words has been robbed from Robert’s father. He goes so far and compares memories to the written word, “Die Schrift verblasst, ähnlich wie Erinnerungen im Gedächtnis erlöschen, wenn sie nicht immer wieder abgerufen werden (Dean 38).” As a prisoner of his own body and mind, Ray can only rely on his son, the narrator to piece together the memory puzzle. By reconstructing Ray’s life, the narrator gives birth to another character in many ways. The few physical remnants that can be found are of no use to the protagonist. “Da ist nichts Brauchbares, das mich weiterbringen könnte: Es sind genau drei Schubladen Müll, was von seinem ganzen Leben übriggeblieben ist (Dean 80).” It is unimaginable for the protagonist to picture a life without speaking and communicating. “Ich will reden, ich muss mit jemandem reden können. Wohin soll ich sonst mit all den Sätzen, die wie Widerhaken in meinem Kopf stecken (121 Dean).”
The extradiegetic-homodiegetic narrator is in pursuit of memory and history by inserting informants throughout the narrative. (Navira, Lennox, family members)
Leonie, Navira and Ray are the most prominent characters that the author uses to depict the possible approaches for self-discovery. Navira in particular symbolizes the self-recognition that Robert searches for. “Meine Haut sticht nicht von der ihren ab, sie geht in ihre über. Ein Gefühl der Unwirklichkeit entsteht (72).” Their indistinguishable skin color allows Robert the possibility for recognition through another. Dean hints at a recognition factor that can be found outside of a person’s family circle. In Writing Outside the Nation, Azade Seyhan maintains that “speaking through the other(s) grants the author of the autobiography freedom from the fixity of circumscribed positions and self-definitions (71).” By using characters through which the author can speak, such as Navira and Leonie, the narrator allows himself to exist in multiple positions.
Leonie, the protagonist’s wife is situated as the voice of reason within the narrative. She continually encourages Robert’s search for his father and his roots. “Wurzeln, Wurzeln, echot Leonie und fragt mich ob es nicht genau an der Wurzellosigkeit dieser Gesellscaft liege, der keine Tradition und kein fester Platz gegeben sei (364).” After meeting Navira, the narrator begins to see his wife Leonie in a different light as well. “Dass Leonie blond ist, war nie ein Thema zwischen uns, warum sollte es auch. Zum Thema Haar- und Hautfarbe erst jetzt, wo ich von einer dunklen Frau angezogen werde. Leonie, die helle, klare Architektin, wird mir nun zum Gegenpol der dunklen Welt des indischen Vaters und seiner Pflegerin (Dean 62).” In the same instance, Navira and Leonie are both parallels for Trinidad and Switzerland.
Navira is the character that allows the protagonist to feel more like his indian father. The distinguishing factor about Navira is that her characteristics and attributes are positve. In many ways, she wishes to protect the narrator from what he is hoping to find out. “Vielleicht ist es ja gut, dass er dir nicht alles erzählen kann. So bleibt dir einiges erspart (Dean 41).” Her own longings mirror those of Robert, he finds comfort in their similarities. She claims that, “Es ist doch mehr eine Sehnsucht. Bei mir ist Indien so eine Sehnsucht. Immer wünsche ich mir, dahin fahren zu können, aber dann tue ich’s doch nicht (Dean 54).” She continues to explain, that in the end she only communicates her wishes, without acting on them. In addition, she represent offers Robert a free spirited approach to self-acceptance. The narrator notes, “Bei Navira, die immer bunt angezogen ist, beginne ich auf die Farben zu achten. Wenn man eine braune Haut hat, verändern die Farben ihre Wirkung. Ich selber trage am liebsten Blau und Schwarz. Das sind Farben, die meine Hautfarbe neutralisieren. Navira dagegen spielt mit der Wirkung, die grelle Farben auf ihre Haut haben (Dean 84).” The narrator admits that Navira helps him to rediscover his own skin color, thereby making him feel more indian.
As a substitute for Ray’s missing history, the narrator recounts historical facts about Trinidad. By pointing out factual information that can not be disputed, the narrator establishes a foundation. He minimizes possible authenticity objections as he recalls events that have a record and are widely accepted. In addition, the descriptions of Trinidad and its people are defined against the Swiss standard. “Übertriebene Gesten, grosse Geschmeidigkeit, Durchtriebenheit und Kindlichkeit, das sind typische Charakterzüge meiner Vaterinsel. Eigenschaften die mich ebenso anziehen wie sie mich abstossen (17).” The narrator establishes Trinidad’s characteristics negatively, as they are completely unfamiliar to him personally yet he still posses an uncanny desire to embody those attributes. He can only recollect and collect information that has been told by others. The aspect of the mysterious and foreign land is an additional possibility that allows the protagonist to reconstruct his father’s history.
In contrast, Robert regards Switzerland, his current homeland, as an opposition to Trinidad. “Dieses merkwürdige, mit Kuhwiesen und hohen Bergen ausgestattete Land im Herzen Europas war das pure Gegenteil von Trinidad. Sauber statt schutzig, reich und selbstbewusst statt arm und abhängig (213).” The narrator continues to contrast the two worlds in terms of their inhabitants as well, “Hin und her zwischen der Neuen und der Alten Welt. Zwischen der Hitze der Tropen und dem eisigen Schnee Europas. Zwischen dem Karneval der Hautfarben und den genauen Gesichtern der Artbeiter und Beamten (Dean 66).”
“Gadamer maintains that the desire for understanding originates in the self’s experience of its otherness (283), and understanding is always interpretation of the other, the realization of historical understanding takes place in the fusion of familiarity and foreignness (Seyhan 6).”
The internally focalized narrator unfolds the protagonist’s cultural duality and his continual quest for answers by transposing historical chronology into the temporally jumbled structure of “story.”
After the narrator introduces the missing link, whom he believes to be Ray, he continues to build on the information that would lead to factual information. He achieves this by searching for Ray’s relatives as well as any persons he may have been in contact with in his previous life.
Descriptive pauses and ellipsis are the predominant aspects of duration in Meine Väter. In order to transform, the protagonist’s puzzling history without a logical sequence, the narrator must collect accessible pieces of the past and insert them into the plot to fill gaps where personal memory fails. The lack of personal memory from Ray pushes the narrator to hunt down any one person that had relations with this figure. As the narrator sorts through the life events of the Ray, he offers closure through the narrative process.
The function of the narrator shifts between communicative and testimonial roles, depicting a protagonist who longs to connect as well as to confess. This narrative offers transnational authors a method for narrativity mediating their dual worlds. The therapeutic nature of confessing acts as a potential remedy for those who are displaced in their own homeland. The act of narration in Dean’s instance enables him to communicate directly with an audience, thereby mediating the author’s external world, that of alienation, with his internal personal struggles that force him to come to terms with this displacement.
Seyhan argues, “The writing agent knows that the present consciousness of the past is stored in word and image, and remembering, therefore, cannot offer a faithful and unmediated reconstruction of a historically verifiable past; instead, it expresses the play of the autobiographical act itself, in which the materials of the past are shaped by memory and imagination to serve the needs of present consciousness (94).”