Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode
By Ingo Schulze
Translated from the German
by John E. Woods
Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pp. $25.95
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Reviewed by Susan Balée
Ingo Schulze grew up in Dresden when East Germany was a communist country.
When he was 27, the Berlin Wall came down. He's old enough to remember the German Democratic Republic and young enough to enjoy the opportunities capitalism gave him. His novel, New Lives (2008), offered a rollicking account of how quickly the young Easterners embraced Western values, for better and for worse. Imagine Goethe's Mephistopheles making a deal with Erich Kästner's Fabian and you'll see the comic possibilities of the novel.
His latest collection of short stories is less compelling, perhaps because the new lives are not so new anymore, or perhaps just because these tales seem like short conversations, out of the context of any larger meaning - sort of like the internal ruminations the angels hear in Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire. The former Easterners wrestle with cell phones and new apartment buildings, and, of course, they can now visit the Western world, where the influence of America is ubiquitous:
Sometimes we watched CNN but avoided talking about the details. Reiner said that words like "air base," "air strikes," and "Serbs" already seemed more familiar, more appropriate to him than the German terms, which really just sounded like translations. It was much the same for me. If I read the word Katastrophe somewhere, it immediately became "catastrophe," whether it was about a flood in Bavaria, pollution in the Danube, or Albanians.
Still, no matter how much their world has changed, the main thing on the mind of the male narrators in these stories is love. Love makes both the Eastern and the Western worlds go round. One man spends his life in a daze dreaming of the woman he lost and hopes he may someday meet again.
What was I doing here in the middle of a meaningless life among strangers? Every year I was convinced that this would be my last New Year's Eve, I wouldn't be able to endure another. . . . One year, it must have been the midnineties, I lay wide awake on my back, beside Ute. Suddenly she asked me whether I still thought of Julia often. I barely had time to hide my face in my hands before I broke into sobs. It's a mystery to me how Ute put up with my theatrics.
The theme of these stories is disillusionment, that emotion that occurs when hope is frustrated and is no doubt what the Eastern Germans felt when they faced the reality of reunification. For people who grew up assuming their lives were unchangeable, fate has a particular power. One character observes, "Fate is a secularized version of God. You don't want him to be in charge anymore. Left on your own, however, you feel overburdened." Another character brings up the period of history that continues to disturb most Germans: "If we were to understand the Holocaust as fate . . . that would mean it could be repeated and we wouldn't have to ask who did it. There is a difference between saying, 'the fate of the Jews' or 'what the Germans did to the Jews,' you know?"
The best tale in the collection is the one about a circus bear in Estonia. The newly Western Estonians are broke, and one museum director gets the idea to entice some Finns to the country to hunt bears. Alas, there are no bears near Tallinn, so the Estonian entrepreneur buys a circus bear named Seryosha and lets him loose near the rifle-toting Finnish businessmen. The amiable bear appears and bullets begin to fly; the writer who bears witness records the scene.
I have never used the following phrase, and will presumably never use it again, but in this case there is no avoiding it: I didn't believe my eyes. No, not even when I saw what was happening right before them. It was Seryosha. But he wasn't jumping or dancing or doing somersaults. Seryosha, if not with great skill, was riding a woman's bicycle. It looked as if his paws kept slipping off the pedals, and every few yards I expected him to upend, or go flying over the handlebars.
The trained bear escapes into the forest, leaving the bullet-shattered bicycle behind. Perhaps that's the message Schulze means to convey. Is it possible to go back to the era before capitalism, even before communism, when nature ruled and relations between people weren't based on any political system? Or is that a fantasy?
After all, it's hard to imagine that a trained circus bear could survive alone in the woods.