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by Ingo Schulze
ISBN 0375705120 / 9780375705120 / 0-375-70512-0
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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, GŁnter 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 [via]