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NewCityNet Germanic Impression

By Nathan Matteson

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Simple Stories: A Novel from the East German Provinces by Ingo Schulze, translated by John E. Woods (Knopf), $25, 320 pages

While it may be debatable whether or not the twenty-nine stories in Ingo Schulze's second work are exactly "simple," it's an entirely disingenuous description of the novel-like construction that they form.

And I don't feel too embarrassed in admitting that I had to skim back over most of the stories to sort out each character's relationship (mother's brother's third ex-wife's best friend's lover's father) to the others. Those constructions alone would've been enough to make an interesting read, but the fact that the individuals' stories cross politically annihilated yet still psychologically real borders -- namely that of the defunct East and West Germanys -- makes the tales' ins and outs that much more compelling in a jaded Western world.

It's common enough, I suppose, to force a reader into the recognition that individuals exist across and, in fact, because of abstract and conventional borders. Harder to achieve, however, is a true understanding of the entrenched mechanisms that create a variety of subjects within an essentially hegemonic environment. And this is precisely what occurs during a thorough reading of "Simple Stories." Schulze offers up a series of interconnected narratives -- all presented through an amalgam of first-person narrators -- that intertwine to produce a distinct brand of nothingness.

Thankfully, Schulze's stories are more than just "simple" bits of writing: They exist as literary snapshots of isolated events in a complex web of the interaction that makes up the real meat of human life. Many times it's only half way through a "Simple Story" that we begin to piece together any idea of what's actually occurring; and where; and with whom. Events occur that are all but meaningless to one character, yet mean the world to another. The fact that most of the characters are dealing with a Germany "when the wall was already gone, but the two Germanys were not" is certainly significant; but not in a specifically Germanic way -- fictionally, it's a powerful metaphor that strengthens a knowledge of the physically intangible walls that structure our relationships with the profusion of non-fictional characters that we relate to during our parallel existences.

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