Encounters with badgers and bicycles

<i>Simple Stories</i> by Ingo Schulze, trans. John E Woods (Picador, &pound;14.99, 280pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The title of Ingo Schulze's first novel strikes me as curious. Originally, the book appeared in Germany as "Simple Storys" [sic]. I never understood how the publisher, Berlin Verlag, could have overlooked this spelling mistake: it seemed that the plural form of "story" or "storey" had been aimed for, and missed. The truth, however (although now somewhat clouded by John E Woods's wonderful translation), is actually fundamental to the novel.

The title of Ingo Schulze's first novel strikes me as curious. Originally, the book appeared in Germany as "Simple Storys" [sic]. I never understood how the publisher, Berlin Verlag, could have overlooked this spelling mistake: it seemed that the plural form of "story" or "storey" had been aimed for, and missed. The truth, however (although now somewhat clouded by John E Woods's wonderful translation), is actually fundamental to the novel.

Berlin Verlag took "storys" to be the German plural of an English word adopted by the vernacular. Why? Possibly because it denotes contemporary, everyday language; Schulze's protagonists are contemporary, everyday people. But it also denotes also a state of transition, when cultures and histories are forced to mix in a changing landscape. This is the situation faced by the characters in Simple Stories.

Schulze heads each chapter with a brief synopsis. His clarity underlines the intention to present these dour stories in an unaffected manner. These 29 episodes successfully express a sense of detachment in tone and form. They open with an account of Renate and Ernst Meurers' first trip abroad, an almost clichéd take on an "Ossi" family's initiation to the West. When Dieter Schubert inexplicably climbs the face of a cathedral, Schulze hints at an ubiquitous sense of desperation. But it is clear to Ernst that he will not jump. Dieter has neatly left his shoes waiting at the bottom. The scene is comic and absurd, but equally tragic.

The stories range from unwavering accounts of the bleak economic status of the old East Germany to depictions of irrational paranoia. Whether it is in the search for love or stability, Raffael's failing taxi firm or Dr Holitzschek's fear that she might have run over a badger, Schulze subtly deploys his wit.

Death mingles casually with life. We learn that Martin Meurer's wife is killed in an accident involving a car and her bicycle. She hated riding it but does to save money when her husband becomes unemployed.

The deadpan tone ensures the novel grows in complexity without detracting from its otherwise joyous simplicity. Things just happen. What makes their occurrence complex, perhaps, is the unrestrained barrage of impulses that we experience.

Concentrating on East German lives after the fall of the Wall, Simple Stories is not merely a unification novel. Together, these stories become epic: a perfect illustration of the human condition in a country under which the earth's plates constantly shift. Schulze can leave the reader bereft of an emotional foundation, but his simple stories are a triumph.

Comments