From the author of 33 Moments of Happiness ("Ingo Schulze is our new epic storyteller" --Günter Grass), a heartbreaking and funny first novel about the people in a deadbeat little town in East Germany that makes us understand, as nothing else, what life has been like since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Altenburg in Thuringia, a provincial flyspeck on the map of the new Germany, is Schulze's Winesburg, Ohio. With laconic wit and a tenderness immune to sentimentality, he starts to tell us "simple stories" (much of the book is carried in pitch-perfect dialogue) about seemingly unconnected people. At first, there appears to be nothing so unusual about what happens to Renate and Martin, Barbara and Frank, Raffael and Jenny, as they look for love, for jobs, for some means, honest or devious, of understanding or forgetting the past. And yet, what is gradually revealed in the minutiae of their everyday experiences is the
collapse of an entire world and the dramatic fault line that has run through so many East German lives since 1990.
As each episode in this remarkable tapestry sparks with connections to stories we've already heard, we begin to realize that these people are inexorably intermeshed and that Schulze is moving back and forth through the town, crosscutting events and lives cinematically and allowing their elements to reassemble.
By the time the last story ends, we know we have been listening to a novel in glittering fragments spun by a master -- a complete tragicomedy of ordinary people in Nowheresville caught up in the last great historical cataclysm of our century.
Ingo Schulze made his American debut in 1998 with 33 Moments of Happiness
, in which he unearthed some memorable squalor, violence, frustration, and (yes) happiness amid the rubble of post-perestroika St. Petersburg. Now the author returns to his own stomping ground with Simple Stories
, which takes place in an East German Podunk called Altenburg. At first this novel's 29 chapters appear to be a sequence of unconnected small-town vignettes. But gradually these narratives converge, producing a comical and cross-pollinated group portrait that's anything but simple.
What is simple, or at least simplified, is Schulze's style. The prose he unleashed in his first book was witty, ornate, and occasionally brutal--call it very dirty realism. This time he's produced a more deadpan work, whose whittled-down, first-person sentences are more akin to Raymond Carver than, say, Günter Grass:
It's Tuesday, April 7. Tom is celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday. Two years ago he inherited some money, and soon afterward Billi, his wife, inherited even more. They're living near Leisnig now, in an old farmstead built around a courtyard. Billi takes care of the twins and the garden and gives flute lessons. Tom is still turning out wooden sculptures--gigantic heads with gigantic noses--that he doesn't have to sell anymore. And so it goes. The very flat, very American tone, which has been adeptly translated by John E. Woods, may be a deliberate mirror of Altenburg's watered-down and Westernized culture. It is in any case an effective vehicle for Schulze's tale, in which great and (mostly) small tragedies seem like aftershocks of Germany's own historical earthquake of the early 1990s. Revolution, the author seems to be saying, is all very well for its cosmopolitan fomenters--but will it play in the sticks? Simple Stories
provides at least a partial and hardly pessimistic answer. --Ingrid Broun
Prize-winning German writer Ingo Schulze's first novel, Simple Stories , is a marvel of storytelling and craft. Set in the East German town of Altenburg after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it deftly leaps among an array of confused characters caught in the crossroads of their country?s history: a lovelorn waitress who falls for a visiting West German investor; an art historian turned traveling salesman; a former Communist official plagued by his past; an unsuccessful writer who asks his neighbor to break his leg so that he can continue to live on welfare.
Schulze skillfully intercuts an assortment of moving and comic vignettes about seemingly unconnected people, gradually linking them into an exhilarating whole of tidal unity and emotional force, until we see that all the time we have been reading a novel in glittering fragments, spun by a master. With a piercing eye for detail and a magical ear for dialogue, Schulze portrays the tragi-comedy of ordinary people caught up in the last great historical upheaval of the century.
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