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Noel MurrayGerman writer Ingo Schulze's first collection of short stories, 3 Moments Of Happiness, explored the crannies of post-Cold War St. Petersburg. For the follow-up, Simple Stories, he returns to his own hometown of Altenburg, a small community located in the former East Germany. The 29 anecdotal tales in Simple Stories range from the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall through the end of the decade, as the citizens of Altenburg deal with the particulars of their newfound freedom. Schulze alternates between the first person and the third person in elliptical narratives that have the quality of the overheard, with incidents and characters dropped seemingly at random, as if the person telling the story expects that the reader already knows the rough outline and now is getting only the detail. For the reader, who lacks that valuable outline, Simple Stories can be challenging and confusing. But as the brief chapters pass by, Schulze's mosaic becomes clearer, as does the reason this collection has been dubbed "a novel." He frequently brings back key characters in later chapters as a means of clarifying earlier events: The psychiatrist met in chapter five, for example, turns out to have been responsible for the death of the wife of the unemployed art historian met in chapter four--though Schulze doesn't reveal that the wife has died until chapter ten, at which point it's revealed that the art historian's son is living with his journalist aunt, met in chapter three. The web of these two dozen or so characters grows tighter and, like filmmaker Robert Altman, Schulze weaves in and out of lives, using a prose style that's halfway between Raymond Carver and Dubliners-era James Joyce. The purpose of all this episodic rambling is to show how a city recovers from decades of living under heavy government, and in the early stories, characters make tentative steps across borders, still identifying their neighbors by whether they were Party leaders or revolutionary grumblers. By the final stories, some Altenburgers have died, while others have moved away from their hometown, many of them abandoning long-term romantic relationships for something new. Throughout this pointillist collection, Schulze shows how political oppression can be replaced by guilt and regret, and how, just as his neighbors learned to get by during the chill of the Cold War, they can also get by in the sometimes sweltering heat of a new day.
3 Noel Murray