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The preface and one of the stories tell the same tale from two points of view - that the book itself is the edited version of some weekly letters written home by a German businessman working in St. Petersburg. At first, the businessman wrote of St. Petersburg life. Then, lacking material, he began building the letters around fictional tales, and this is the part of his output from which the present book was compiled. Many stories are indeed in the first person, and the first person is a German working on a Russian weekly in St. Petersburg. Put the two pictures together and you have a good idea of the general style. The missing elements are a) that many tales are fantastic and b) that quite a few are inspired by previous tales in literature.
To my eyes, the "reportorial" details are faithful and revealing, and they have the appreciable virtue of not falling for "that unique St. Petersburg spirit", though almost all the stories are set in the region. What is revealed is more often urban or village life in West Russia generally, and this is as it should be.
If you take the fiction as presented above, then it's a nice framework into which to post these observations. But if you take it as fiction, then the framework betrays a serious literary failure. In all stories, third- or first-person, the tone is that of the external reporter, and this simply doesn't bring to the prose the color it needs to carry the fantasy, and especially to breathe life into the cultural and spiritual themes that are the motive force behind it. We have fantastic themes, yes, but only the usual insights of the most ploddingly realistic fiction.
Said another way - if rich prose is prose that holds within its sentences gripping detail, deep color and complex cultural connotations and evocations, then 33 Moments is an example of poor literary prose. It's the kind of prose you would find in a long New York Times article, treating one thing at a time and always in the same tone.
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This is a tough book, in every sense of the word. The language is desultory and barren. The characters never achieve empathy. The country remains an unknown place with an tenuous fate even after all the stories unfold.
The title of the book is a misnomer. Nothing about it is simple. The author has laid out a novel in short story form, which adds to the sense of the experience as an incoherent whole. It's difficult to latch on to the hopes or feelings of any of the characters, since they're so easily lost to the next chapter and the muddy narrative.
For a taste of the atmosphere of East Germany in the vise grip of change, the book may have some value. Mostly, though, it's a cynical trip through a purgatory of boredom. To the extent that purgatory is a temporary place, the logical outcome would be for these characters to move into a brighter future. At the end of this book, though, it's hard to be so hopeful. And it's harder to care.
True to his guileless prose, Schulze is "not inventing any of it." Yet it would be quite reductive to label his language as pure Americana. It is American in that it is stripped-down, bare of many Old World pretensions, but Simple Stories departs from our modern literary tradition in its lack of sensationalism, redeeming, that Schulze's unadorned language is unadulterated by derogatory shock filler.
This is especially evident in his adept handling of a rape that transpires between Altenburg waitress Connie Schubert and nomadic American real estate salesman, Harry Nelson. "He and his hand didn't listen to me. Then came a pain that ran from my shoulders all the way down my back. 'Raise your arms,' someone shouted,'Raise your arms!' For a moment I didn't know where I was or what had pushed itself into me. My blouse was yanked up. And the same syllables again and again: 'Raise your arms!"
This is not to say that Schulze's medleys are solely documentary or homages to quotidian occurrences. In perhaps one of the best passages, a Schulze narrator, Danny, is frozen by the singular event of looking into "crocodile eyes," the grainy veneer of a cheap old Stasi desk. "Every time it happens, I promise myself I'm going to talk to the others about this amoeba-like grain in the veneer," she says. "We all have to spend our time staring at these lines and squiggles, which at the far left look like a crocodile's eye. But nobody ever says anything, and I keep forgetting it, too, like some bad dream."
Moments of stasis like this fill a precious few pages. No matter what the situation, Schulze's characters always seem on the move, chugging aimlessly along into their automobiles, usually Plymouths, but sometimes Renaults. Schulze's world is effused with this odd combination of German sensibility and American kitsch. Why Schulze's characters prefer to drive around in Plymouths rather than Benzes is intriguing in that it cannot be a purely economic consideration. We soon begin to realize the tacit commentary that is being made. The Wall is down, but westernization is not restitution enough, leaving more wanderers than homesteaders.
Yet, it is an over-arching lack of the epic scale, in the technical sense, that hurts the book as a whole. It would take a particularly patient reader to digest the 29 stories in one sitting but an even more intent reader to manage to surmise the complex connections between the vignettes, which are often too based on moniker relations rather than convergence of plot or metaphor. Often one finds the need for a family tree, a flow chart to keep straight the characters.
The invasion of western pop culture is also at a representational disadvantage in this book, as it is a translation. It is literally impossible to discern American colloquial from German idiom, as they become one and the same, written in the equivalent language.
No doubt Schulze is a master craftsman, but his few missteps in this new volume lead one to hold back unabashed praise. END
No, sorry, this is not a book about any political process: It is a book about people. And their stories and obsessions are not confined to one moment in time or one place on earth. Much of this can happen in Maine just as well as in Magdeburg. Schluze is excellent at showing how spooky or meaningful the most mundane of incidences can sometimes be. His masterful arrangement of the "Simple Stories" keeps drawing you in, there is a mounting tension - and, as I must admit, a growing sense of depression. In one way or another, all of these people's lives seem to be going wrong. And yet they survive, so one may find the effect exhilarating as well, for while many characters fail to find a respectable place in a society which is alien to them, they assemble a biography which is all the more individual and interesting.
Schulze has been hailed as one of the most interesting writers of the younger generation in Germany - not just by the critics, but by a large and loyal readership, too. The title of the book, which can be read a both German or English, hints at Schulze's American hero Raymond Carver. However, Schulze uses some of his techniques to compose a caleidoscopic picture of East Germany after the downfall of Communism - or of humanity after the big ideas?
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