Thursday, May 10, 2012

ON THE AVENUES: Not simple at all.

ON THE AVENUES: Not simple at all.

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

Book review: Simple Stories: A Novel,” by Ingo Schulze.

The Berlin Wall fell almost a quarter of a century ago, and two German states divided by opposing –isms were quickly reunited.

These days, we often forget that while Chancellor Helmut Kohl wasted no time in seizing his historical moment by rapidly pressing home the notion of immediate German unity while the window was yet ajar, not everyone on either side of the Cold War divide thought it was a good idea.

Many observers envisioned a more gradual transition, with the two ideologically disparate German states eventually merging into one, but in the end, the prevailing mood did not favor gradualness. Events galloped forward, and in one giant gulp, one of the world’s most vibrant Western capitalist economies swallowed the gritty socialist reality of the German Democratic Republic and its “Ossified”, outmoded Soviet-issue cars, factories, apartment blocks … and perhaps most importantly, people, along with their conditioned responses.

It surely amounted to a bailout; not some curative largesse meant for far-off Ireland or Iceland, but aimed toward eastern cousins widely regarded as poor, oppressed and degraded. Unsurprisingly, these folks didn’t enjoy being lectured about their shortcomings as part of the deal to be absorbed and rebuilt, and these many years later, in spite of everything, a level of indigestion apparently persists.

It required forty years for the GDR to become what it was by the time it expired. A teenager from Germany’s eastern provinces, struggling to cope with the devastating legacy of wartime defeat, first would have been subjected to a period of socialist reorientation, then taken his or her place in the work force, and by 1989, would have been approaching retirement when compelled yet again to fathom an ideological sea change and its inevitable dislocations and redundancies.

Four decades isn’t much when it comes to geology, but it is a long time in human affairs. It will take that long or longer – and the passing of generations – before the scars of unification fade.

Most often this unification tale is related through economic statistics, but it never was a story meant to be story meant to be told by cost-benefit analyses. Rather, it was about millions of ordinary people, getting along as best they could, being raised – working, playing, living, loving and dying – in a certain way, and then overnight, being told (as opposed to being asked) to unlearn most of what they knew, and to relearn multiple different social, cultural, economic languages.


This is the backdrop of Ingo Schulze’s novel, Simple Stories. Schulze was born in GDR times, and is not a writer by training, but he has established a considerable niche in Germany as a contemporary chronicler of his eastern homeland as it was during the initial phase of unification in the early 1990’s.

The novel itself is constructed as a series of inter-related stories, linked by characters and events already described, or about to be. While I can imagine this unconventional format being handled more deftly by the likes of Peter Nadas, Schulze suffices for the purpose of conveying what it feels like to be stuck in a moment, one you have little choice but to get out of, even if the transition is confusing.

A wall may fall down, barriers may vanish, and although one awakens to a different country, the experience cannot automatically produce a different person. Tellingly, the novel’s characters cope with varying degrees of efficiency with the most fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism: In the former, you were provided sustenance and the propaganda was directed toward you from the top down, but in the latter, if you’re not to starve, you must find work disseminating the propaganda itself, whether as a telemarketer, sales person or peddler, accepting a few more farthings than before to do your job, less overall security, and the latent hope, however ephemeral, that someday the wealth might accumulate.

Some of Schulze’s characters plod forward into their new lives with nary an opinion, while others remain mired inside self-images of the past. The novel shifts quirkily before fading into a collage of the mundane, rather than end with any sort of resolution or moral. No one was saved, and I was left with a feeling of bleakness and unease. West Germans had a lot more things than East Germans, although the question of whether either system possessed a soul is something we’ll all continue to debate, long after the GDR is forgotten.


In the aftermath of recent European Union elections, and a trend of anti-austerity results, I am struck by the irony that when a candidate in France or Greece now speaks about the imperative of resisting Germany’s solution to Europe’s economic crisis, residents of Dresden, Greifswald and Potsdam have traveled full circle: From part of the problem to part of the solution, and back again, with at least some presumably never having vacated the high rise flat allotted them back when Erich Honecker held sway even if their Trabants are long gone.

Once they were the woeful recipients of largesse, playing the roles of underperforming Mediterraneans to the frowning bankers in Frankfurt with their turnips for checkbooks. Now, once again, they’re just those damned imperialist Germans. Indeed, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

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