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Nesting Dolls

Simple Storys

by Ingo Schulze
Berlin Verlag, 303 pp., DM38.00

Ingo Schulze has been a big success in Germany ever since 33 Moments of Happiness won three prizes in 1995, and sold over 40,000 copies. It was his first book. He was born in East Germany in 1962, studied classics at Jena University, then got a job as dramaturge at the theater in the small East German city of Altenburg—no German town is too small to have a theater. After that he started an advertising weekly, and in 1993 spent six months in St. Petersburg setting up a similar publication there. 33 Moments of Happiness is the result of that stint, a fusion of travel writing and fiction, some of it surrealist, some Chekhovian. The “happiness” in the title has to be taken with a pinch of salt: the 33 short pieces are as much about the unhappiness created by the end of communism as about the ecstasies of freedom; but mostly about the Russianness of Russians.

The stories vary in quality—and in length. Story 10 (they are untitled but numbered) tells a not very funny joke in twenty-eight lines. Story 28 describes the coming of spring in two lyrical pages: “Of an evening, shadows like tendriled plants climbed the walls, then faded, only to reemerge out of the twilight and wander up a neighboring building.” The atmosphere of Russia in every piece is at least potentially poetic and numinous; and as thick, palpable, fetid, impenetrable, and inflammable as the layer of grease and dust that covers everything there; or so it seems to the narrator.

He narrates at more than one remove: 33 Moments of Happiness has the device of the “discovered manuscript” popular in the nineteenth century. It begins with a letter from I.S. (Ingo Schulze) to a literary friend: he wants expert advice on how to publish a collection of sketches about Russia, which he found in a folder tucked behind his bag on the train from Germany to St. Petersburg. It must have been left there by a German businessman whose acquaintance he made on the journey and who got off during the night. The man said his name was Hofmann, and that is the clue: in spite of a missing f, Schulze’s stories can be read as Tales of Hoffmann, wild and surreal. Besides, one of them has a beautiful singer in it called Giulietta, along with an editorial note explaining that it is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “New Year’s Eve Adventure.”

Russia is a place where such tales could happen today. Some of them have narrators of their own, and some of these narrators introduce yet another narrator from whom they heard the story they have to tell: a Russian doll structure well suited to a book aiming to get at the innermost layers of the Russian soul.

German critics vied with one another to discover Schulze’s literary sources—it was like a competition to find the largest number of hidden faces in a puzzle picture. Some are disclosed in Schulze’s own “Selected Editorial Notes,” a semispoof at the end of his book: Bely, Chekhov, Nabokov, Bulgakov, Pushkin, and, of course, Hoffmann. I spotted Dostoevsky, but the Tagesspiegel critic came up with Lermontov, Bloch, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Tolstoy, and Brodsky as well. Magic realists, especially Indian ones like Vikram Chandra, hover over the stories, and you can hear the LA novelist Dennis Cooper loading his Kalashnikov and sharpening his breadknife behind the dacha washhouse.

Pushkin’s “The Postmaster” is the origin of Story 18. In Pushkin’s tale the beautiful daughter of a widowed provincial postmaster elopes with an officer. The postmaster dies of grief. After several years an elegant lady arrives in the village in a carriage drawn by six horses, enquires about the graveyard, and throws herself on the postmaster’s grave. Her coat billows out over the ground. In Schulze’s version, the narrator stops at a gas station diner run by an old man whose beautiful teenage daughter waits at table, just like the girl in Pushkin’s story. Four years later he returns to the village and finds the old man crippled with arthritis and living all alone in a broken-down trailer. “So you knew my Sonyusha?” he says. “I brought Sonya up to believe in the ideals of Communism…. Sonya and I wanted to be examples. We wanted to prove you can do good work even when it’s for other people and not for personal gain.” But Sonya went for a drive with a bunch of merry young people from Moscow and never returned.

Six months later the narrator gets a fax from his friend Misha. It tells how a snowstorm forced him to spend the night near the same gas station, and there he heard that the old man had died. A little boy took Misha to the cemetery and told him (the story is now on its fifth Russian doll, counting from the outside in) how a strange woman came to the cemetery and fell on the ground. Her coat billowed out over the old man’s grave. Misha sweeps the snow from the mound, and finds it covered with roses, “a sea of roses! You’ve never seen anything like it.” The little boy figures in Pushkin’s story too, but not the roses.

Do the flowers signify the revival—or survival—of religion and superstition in post-Communist Russia? Story 7 is about a religious scam. It is told by an old woman, Valentina, who works as a guard in a provincial museum. One day she is amazed to see a man kneeling before one of the icons on display. He leans forward, breaks the glass, and kisses the icon. “His lips were bleeding, and then he kissed it again, and his lips weren’t bleeding any more, I’d swear to that in court!”

More and more people come every day to kiss the face of the Madonna who is shown with her Child; they arrive singly at first, then by the busload. One morning Valentina finds “the Madonna and the Savior were gone. I mean their faces had disappeared, were all black, clear to the edge.” Then she hears the icon has turned up in the cathedral. “I was relieved,” says Valentina. “Everybody thought: The police won’t allow that, the state won’t, that’s robbery. The fairy tale about it making its way to the church on its own because it belongs there, that it fled from us to seek protection there—you can’t tell the police a story like that.” But she’s wrong. Larger crowds than ever come to the cathedral, and everyone is delighted; even the museum director, and especially the janitor and furnace man who now make a fortune out of photographs they took before the faces were missing. The twist is that Valentina is a true believer—in old communism. Though uneducated, she is a rationalist and impervious to miracles, even if she doesn’t grasp the scam. Credulity (or faith), Schulze seems to be saying, is an inborn capacity, never mind whether it’s directed by religious or rationalist preconceptions. And the scam is on the reader as much as Valentina.

Story 4 opens with Hofmann in a state of exasperation: “Russia—all you can do is leave it!” He goes on with a catalogue of horrors—many of them hygienic. Then comes the story: a beggar woman accosts him in the vegetable market. She is so smelly that to get rid of her he shoves a ten-thousand- ruble note into her hand. It has the opposite effect: she falls at his feet, kisses them, then kisses her way right up to his chin. The onlookers—market people as well as a woman in a chic suit—follow her example: “Filled with the wish to do good, they pressed more closely around me, gave me apples, pears, radishes and matryoshkas. Two vendors knelt down, loosened my sandals and washed my feet with their spittle and hair.” They lay him on a market stall, strip off his clothes, and write their names and addresses all over his body, begging him to come and visit them. Hofmann says he enjoyed “the way they stretched my skin between thumbs and forefingers.” Schulze is a very sensuous writer.

The last story takes a similar situation a few hyperboles further. An old man collapses dying on the street. A young woman—a doctor, apparently—bends over him. But instead of administering artificial respiration she takes off her clothes and masturbates him, manually at first, then orally. The onlookers urge her on: “God be with you, what a saint!” “You’re Russia’s redemption!” “A saint!” They sing and kneel and weep and kiss the ground. An old woman offers candles at a hundred rubles each—“two for a hundred and fifty.” The dying man has an erection. “He is risen!” “Yes, he is risen indeed.” The doctor mounts on top of him, and he dies with her breasts closing his eyes. The crowd rushes to grab her clothes, kiss her hands, carry her naked on their shoulders; they pelt her with money, with fruit and eggs and vegetables. “The doctor waved to us, blowing kisses in all directions, and suddenly burst into bright laughter.”

Then Hofmann notices a tiny gap between her teeth and realizes she is not a doctor at all, but the waitress/ prostitute with whom he is infatuated. It took me three readings before I realized it too. The fact that it takes Hofmann so long is unconvincing, when you come to think of it. But Schulze’s writing is so dynamic that you don’t come to think of it. He is a virtuoso of stealth, and some of the miraculous happenings he describes are left open-ended; the reader has to decide whether to believe them or not. Before he got off the train, Hofmann said that “his inclination [was] to invent rather than to research.”

It is the same with atrocities. The mafia shoot-out in Story 12 is obviously an enjoyable nightmare, while Story 17 is a report by the mad manager of a bathhouse, now held in detention. It describes an orgy in the banya, with a banquet served on the waitress’s naked body: “Nikolayev arranged the pelmeni in cream as best he could around her breasts, plastered on a ruff of creamed cabbage and laid trails of vegetables and fish sakuski along her arms.” A party of businessmen lick the food off the girl, and when it has all gone they eat her organ by organ. Both these stories are meticulously ghoulish in detail; funny, too (as long as you’re not squeamish), and not meant to be believed; though Schulze writes so hypnotically that he can make you suspend your sense of the impossible—which is, he seems to be telling you, what happens to Westerners in Russia.

The most teasing incidents are the less prodigious ones that may—or may not—be meant for real. Would a man spit on a visitor’s shoes to show contempt? Would an old man spit in his wife’s mouth? Would a boy eat his own carefully matured shit and offer it to his stepfather who eats it knowingly and appreciates it? Would a nice old bourgeois couple murder a woman arms dealer in the course of their evening walk along the Petersburg canals? They do it by crushing her skull between the embankment railings; then they stroll on arm in arm. Child Nazis living without adults in the woods and selling German wartime guns seem a possibility—just. In the most genial story—and it has a lot of charm—Hofmann sets up a newspaper office in what was once an aristocratic Petersburg apartment and then a state kindergarten. In no time at all the women who work for him turn it into a cozy place with nice plush curtains, a shower, a cat, and a kitchen where they cook lunch. Lunch goes on from three until six, but the work gets done, and instead of going home at night they bring in foldaway beds. Everyone is happy, and the story only a mild exaggeration, one imagines, of Schulze’s own experience.

His Russia is filthy and dangerous, but full of warmth, charm, and humor. His East Germany is sour and prosaic, and the jokes there are snide. Schulze’s second work of fiction has been hyped as the post-reunification novel everyone has been waiting for. It is called Simple Storys, and the misspelled English title is intended to indicate that his models this time have been Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner, and Carver. The resemblance to Carver is the most striking. The book (to be published in translation in the US next year) begins like a collection of short stories; although it is called a novel it takes a while to realize that it actually is one. It has a large cast of characters, but since it is divided into twenty-nine short episodes, each with only two or three characters in it, the ones in the earlier stories eventually return for the second or third time. The fact that they do, and that their CVs interweave and add up to a portrait of a society, is what makes it a novel.

The society is bourgeois and provincial (the setting is mainly Altenburg): teachers, museum curators, journalists, doctors, nurses. No peasants or workers, except for the odd taxi driver from Cuba or the Middle East. There is nostalgia for the good old days when people had moral standards. Relationships break up, but not tragically; new ones form, but not ecstatically. People lose their jobs; some turn to drink; others find new and humbler jobs or move west. Children are generally unsatisfactory. An atmosphere of disillusion hangs over it all. “It is February 91,” writes the young woman journalist called Danny.

Everywhere they’re waiting for the big upturn, building supermarkets and gas stations, opening restaurants and renovating houses. Apart from that there’s nothing but layoffs at work and fights between Fascists and punks, skins and redskins, punks and skins.

(All these designations except “Fascists” are in English: franglais has nothing on Amerikanisch.) Danny’s boss calls her in and tells her not to keep writing about these things. Better to do a piece on Jewish property: Would it be better to restore it or to give the owners compensation instead? The boss talks in dreadful jargon (and so does almost everyone else). Then he makes a joke about getting her pregnant. She keeps looking at his office table. It once stood in a Stasi office, and in its horrible cheap veneer she sees amoebas squirming and a crocodile’s eye.

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