Konrad Kemper, the adolescent hero of Discovering America (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2019), Helmut Fischer’s first published novel, recounts his experiences with his mother and father in a refugee camp near Salzburg in post-World War II Austria, as the family awaits their much-anticipated immigration to America. The story of this memoir cum novel is excellently told from Konrad’s point of view, through his interactions with other refugees in the camp, who include nationalities from Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia, with all the ethnicities of that complex region, and Austrian locals and American soldiers of the occupying forces.
Konrad has a poignant, distorted adolescent view of America based on impressions he has gleaned from reading boy’s adventure novels by Karl May, from limited hearsay sources and local Austrian newspapers, and newsreels at movies, whenever it is possible to view these. He is a precocious and inquisitive eager student, multilingual, an avid reader and a budding novice artist. Besides his mythical elaboration of the American Wild West, with mock Indian and cowboy battles staged by the boys at the camp, his main American hero is Jersey Joe Walcott, the famous American boxer. The appeal of the myth of the Wild West for Konrad and his friends in the refugee camp is reminiscent of the similar experience, including mock Indian battles, recounted by the narrator of James Joyce’s famous short story, “An Encounter,” in Dubliners. Oddly, the pervasiveness of the appeal of the Wild West and its expansive landscape is also the motivating impetus of the recent novel, Inland (2019), by Téa Obreht, also born in the former Yugoslavia, in which she reimagines the Western. See the recent review of Inland, “Off into the Sunset,” by Francisco Cantú in The New Yorker (August 19, 2019; pp. 59-62).
Fischer writes in a lively and readily accessible style, with snatches of humor that break the monotony and seriousness of the plight of the refugees as they tediously await their departure to Canada, Australia, Brazil or America, while they also struggle to survive by working at whatever service and handyman jobs are available at the refugee camp and at nearby towns and farms. Konrad and other adolescent refugees attend a makeshift school where their teacher, Fräulein Inge Seebach, teaches them geography and history from an old Wagner’s Methodical School Atlas from 1903, showing the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, with outdated borders and countries, and where there is no Yugoslavia. Fischer cleverly depicts life at the camp through vignette chapters that also deftly present the characters in the camp from his boyhood perspective. The titles of these chapters are poetically appropriate, for example, the first six chapters: “God’s Children,” “Nightfall,” “The Emperor,” “A Touching Symmetry,” “A Heart for the Refugees,” and “The Atlas.”
One of the activities that the children anticipate eagerly is to dig for “treasures” in the garbage dumped in the American dump ground along the nearby Salzach River. Here, in a chapter entitled “Prospecting,” Konrad discovers an old discarded comic book in English, The Master of Ballantrae, from the Classics Illustrated series. This comic book and its illustrations so intrigue him that he begins to study to learn English so he can read the stained and crumpled magazine and understand the adventures depicted in the cartoon drawings. Although his father does not wholly approve of these “treasure hunts,” he tells him, “Whatever you seek and find, just don’t fall off the edge of the known world from joy.” And he admonishes him: “Just remember, Konrad, you’re destined to discover America.”
This moving story about a young man’s search for and discovery of America is particularly relevant for the current political climate in the United States today, where the status of immigrants is daily questioned and denigrated. The refugee camp in Austria where Konrad Kemper and his family survive while awaiting their opportunity to start a new life in America is a microcosm of America itself as a rich melting pot, where diverse and multilingual ethnic nationalities must learn to tolerate, accept and respect each other because they are all in the same situation and literally in the same boat. Konrad’s account of his discovery and passage to America is an important story and immigrant history that we are all destined to remember.