• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Dying Laughter

Adam and Evelyn

by Ingo Schulze, translated from the German by John E. Woods
Knopf, 288 pp., $27.95
parks_1-112411.jpg
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Ingo Schulze at the Leipzig Book Fair, Germany, March 2007

Romance and comedy are old allies. The combination of intense emotional investment on the part of the lover with inadequate knowledge of the beloved sparks off charming misunderstandings and heartrending separations, which the power of mutual attraction then reassuringly overcomes. The reader is left with the happy impression that egoism has surrendered to the need for affection and even, in this most conservative of genres, for family and children. In their adherence to such a plot Ingo Schulze’s Adam and Evelyn and William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters are very similar. In every other respect they could hardly be more different.

Schulze is German and his fluently translated story is set in Eastern Europe just before the fall of communism and the Berlin Wall; his lovers’ vicissitudes have largely to do with their differing attitudes toward East and West. Giraldi is an American teaching creative writing in Boston; though taking us on a picaresque journey through contemporary America, his tale is most characterized by an extravagantly mannered, probably untranslatable style that blends cartoon hyperbole with an onslaught of literary allusion, parody, and spirited self-reference. If Schulze keeps the attention mostly on his characters, content to raise a smile from time to time, Giraldi never lets us forget his authorial performance, demanding a laugh, if not a giggle, every paragraph.

In his early thirties, the Adam of Adam and Evelyn is a bespoke tailor in an East German town south of Berlin, much sought after for his ability to dress women who no longer have the perfect shape. The year is 1989. Such is Adam’s attention to the female form that he feels it is part of his work to bed his clients, overweight though they may be, during their fitting appointments. When Evelyn, his twenty-one-year-old girlfriend, walks out on her waitressing job and returns home to catch Adam in flagrante, she leaves him in disgust and sets out with her friend Mona and Mona’s older cousin Michael on a long-planned vacation to Hungary for which visas have been procured in advance. Adam, however, does not accept his exclusion from the group. He gasses up his old Wartburg, one of those boxy 1980s testimonies to the technology gap between East and West, packs a tent, sleeping bags, and the couple’s pet turtle, and sets out in pursuit.

Adam is an obsessive, as his occupation might suggest, an attentive observer of everything to do with clothes and style. We learn little of his thoughts or plans but watch him make meticulous preparations, filling his coffee thermos, removing fuses from the electrical system in his house, writing postcards to customers to cancel appointments, making sure the turtle has appropriate bedding and food, collecting a straw hat that Evelyn has forgotten. When he catches up with the others he seems more concerned with the way his girlfriend is dressed and how Michael looks after his car’s upholstery than with passionate or penitential declarations. Having handed over the straw hat to Evelyn, he is then anxious as he follows the group’s car to see it carelessly crushed on the ledge under the rear window.

This attention to peripheral detail, understood as Adam’s point of view, allows Schulze to focus on the minutiae and circumstances of Communist East Germany in 1989: the difficulties obtaining gas, a fascination with unavailable Western products, names like Worker Unity Street, and the paranoia surrounding border crossings. Since Michael, in his forties, is from West Germany, the two girls, concerned that they might be suspected of trying to flee to the West if they approached the border in his bright red Volkswagen, decide to take the train into Czechoslovakia, heading south from Dresden to Prague. This allows the unwanted Adam to offer his services, first to guide Michael to the border crossing, then to meet the girls in Prague when Michael is delayed at passport control, and even to offer them his car to sleep in, since only Michael has the money to pay for a hotel. Resented by the others, the ever-helpful Adam thus becomes functional to the trip. Here he is, just before the Czech border, deliberately playing on Michael’s fear of East German officialdom:

Between Altenberg and Zinnwald …Adam drove off at a rest stop. Two men were hunkered down at a table, one of whom…was staring directly at him as if he recognized him.
Michael followed Adam into the woods. They stood side by side as they peed down the slope….
“I’ve still got one of Evelyn’s bags with me,” Michael said, not turning his head.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“You think?”
“Yep.”
“So what should I do?”
“It may be too late to do anything.”
“You think they may be taking pictures?”
“Those two guys are on discipline detail, they have to picnic here day after day.”
“Merde,” Michael said.

Supposedly, Michael is holidaying with his cousin Mona as a preliminary step to a marriage of convenience that would allow her to leave East Germany, but Adam has sensed that Michael now has something going with Evelyn. Suspicions about the nature of romantic entanglements mesh with paranoia about informers and border guards. The rivalry for the beautiful Evelyn becomes a rivalry between East and West, with Michael missing no opportunity to underline the superiority and wealth of a world where “you live better and longer” and Adam insisting that he lacks nothing under a Communist regime that has “always taken good care of us.” The debate becomes urgent with the news that Hungary is about to open its border with Austria. Flight to the West would suddenly be possible, perhaps easy.

Schulze has a light touch, keeping his prose straightforward and exciting interest by starting each new chapter with a narrative leap that often has us confused and intrigued about what has happened in the interim. Leaving Adam to sleep in his car while they move to a Prague hotel, Michael and the girls give their stalker the slip by departing at dawn; however, since Adam knows that their ultimate destination is the house of an old client of his on Lake Balaton, a Hungarian vacation destination not far from the Austrian border, it is easy enough for him to follow. Meanwhile, in a service station, a girl in damp clothes begs Adam for a lift, claiming she has just survived a failed attempt to swim to freedom across the Danube. Can he smuggle her into Hungary in the trunk of his car?

In character, Adam insists that Katja, as she is called, first launder her clothes and dress in a way that doesn’t offend his eye. The two put up a tent together. Katja thoughtfully finds a new and superior box for his turtle. As every romantic comedy requires, there is now a rival on each side of the novel’s central relationship. Inevitably, Evelyn runs into the pair when they go swimming on arrival at the Hungarian lake. Insisting that she just wants “to be left alone,” Adam’s girlfriend is not unsusceptible to jealousy.

As the group settles down in their friends’ house on the lakeside, Schulze’s plot becomes bewilderingly but believably complex. Thousands of East German vacationers are delaying their return home to see if Hungary really will open its border to Austria and thus to West Germany; there is an atmosphere of expectation. Our group also stays longer than planned. Nevertheless, when Michael starts to share a bed with Evelyn, Mona abruptly returns to East Germany; evidently it was marriage she wanted with Michael, not a ticket to freedom. The sudden imperative of a choice between East and West now becomes a test of love. Michael, anxious to return to his job in Hamburg, wants Evelyn to commit to joining him; she hangs back. However, when their car is broken into and passports stolen, it is he who is reluctant to make a romantic flight across the border without papers. Like Mona, Evelyn wants passion, not Western money. Meanwhile, Adam is invited to tailor clothes for their Hungarian hosts, including his former client, the lovely Pepi, her amorous mother, Frau Angyal, and a decidedly flamboyant friend:

He sat down on the windowsill, pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, gave its trimmed end a quick check, and lit it. As he blew the first smoke out of the window, the three women had already lined up in front of him.

It is a situation bound to increase Evelyn’s jealousy as she worries, making love to Michael, that Adam, camping in the garden outside, may be listening.

The only person absolutely clear in her mind about what she wants is Katja. “To go some place where things function,” she declares, “where you can live reasonably. I would keep on trying, over and over, or I’d throw myself out the window.” Her reward will be a place in Michael’s car, and possibly heart, when he grows impatient with Evelyn (Easterners have no sense of responsibility to work commitments, he grumbles) and heads home. No sooner has the rival gone and the inevitable reconciliation with Adam taken place than Evelyn changes position: denied a place in college by the Communists because she was a rebel at high school, she has no future in the East; now that the border is opening, she wants to go West and study. If Adam loves her, he will follow.

This reversal is the novel’s master stroke. Adam likes his life in the East. With “powerful girlfriends who need a good tailor,” he has no need to toe the political line. Well off and at ease, he enjoys the upper hand in this relationship with a younger woman; following Evelyn to Hungary and accepting her fling with Michael, he has shown his love, but without risking anything. Now he hesitates. Her ideas of freedom are childish, he objects, she just isn’t thinking. Evelyn demands:

“Why don’t you want to go across?”
“Why should I want to?”
“Then you’re not thinking! I could say whoever doesn’t want to go across has never done any real thinking.”
“Why should I have to think about it if I don’t even want to go across?”
“Why should I have to think about it if I don’t even want to stay here? Do you have any idea just how arrogant you’ve become, how narrow-minded.”

Eventually the confusion between love and politics becomes so great that Adam despairingly demands, “Do you have any idea what we’re talking about?”

Nothing would have been easier for Schulze than to have wound up his tale at the moment, comic yet solemn, when Adam capitulates, abandons the safe life he has built himself in the East, and drives his girlfriend west in his ancient Wartburg. But the story has another eighty pages to run. In a hotel in Austria, the two find, among the many curiosities of the West, a Bible on the bedside table and read, for the first time, the story of the Fall. A long, rather forced analogy is set up between their journey and Adam and Eve’s flight from a protected paradise to a dangerous world where anything can happen. But if the comedy and fluency largely go out of the novel at this point, Schulze is courageous in exploring the effect of the couple’s move on their relationship. While Evelyn enjoys Western gadgetry and is excited to enroll at the university, Adam loses all his confidence, poise, and charm; nobody needs a bespoke tailor in the West; people buy clothes off the rack. Not only has he lost his source of income and social status, but he is disoriented by the abundance that Western capitalism thrives on. Meeting up with Katja again, Evelyn complains:

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print