The View from Stalin's Head

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Overview

The ten stories in The View from Stalin’s Head unfold in the post–Cold War Prague of the 1990s—a magnet not only for artists and writers but also for American tourists and college grad deadbeats, a city with a glorious yet sometimes shameful history, its citizens both resentful of and nostalgic for their Communist past. Against this backdrop, Aaron Hamburger conjures an arresting array of characters: a self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews; an artist, once branded as a criminal by the Communist ...
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View from Stalin's Head

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Overview

The ten stories in The View from Stalin’s Head unfold in the post–Cold War Prague of the 1990s—a magnet not only for artists and writers but also for American tourists and college grad deadbeats, a city with a glorious yet sometimes shameful history, its citizens both resentful of and nostalgic for their Communist past. Against this backdrop, Aaron Hamburger conjures an arresting array of characters: a self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews; an artist, once branded as a criminal by the Communist regime, who hires a teenage boy to boss him around; a fiery would-be socialist trying to rouse the oppressed masses while feeling the tug of her comfortable Stateside upbringing. European and American, Jewish and gentile, straight and gay, the people in these stories are forced to confront themselves when the ethnic, religious, political, and sexual labels they used to rely on prove surprisingly less stable than they’d imagined.

As Christopher Isherwood did in his Berlin Stories, Aaron Hamburger offers a humane and subtly etched portrait of a time and place, of people wrestling with questions of love, faith, and identity. The View from Stalin’s Head is a remarkable debut, and the beginning of a remarkable career.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The View from Stalin’s Head is a view of life and loss, desire and despair, coming of age, and running away. In short, this stirring debut is a view of everything that matters, accomplished by a brilliant young writer with tremendous gifts.”
-Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String

"The View from Stalin's Head is just a wonderful collection. One of the loveliest surprises is that things actually happen--there are plots in here! Funny, satisfying and genuinly engrossing, Aaron Hamburger knows how to tell a great story. This book will be good to you."
-Victor LaValle, author of The Ecstatic

"With a sharp eye for outlandish details, absurd turns of phrase, and quiet but monumental moments of realization, Aaron Hamburger lures you into the most intimate worlds of young Czech schoolboys and jaded ex-pats alike. This is a marvelous and honest collection of stories about people searching for identity in a country searching for the same."
-Jessica Shattuck, author of The Hazards of Good Breeding

"To be American, Jewish, Gay, teaching English in Prague: this is the situation limned by Aaron Hamburger in his marvellous collection The View from Stalin's Head. Artfully crafted, funny, poignant, sharply observant of realities and anguishes, these stories introduce a voice as original and engaging as his subject matter. This is a succulent meal indeed!"
-Mary Gordon

"We're definitely not in Paris anymore. The View from Stalin's Head is a triumphant collection of storing chronicling the loves, the losses, and the dreams of denizens of Prague. With charm and wit and force of life, Aaron Hamburger takes us deep inside the city walls. Poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, these stories are as good as they come."
-Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of Hester Among the Ruins

The New York Times
Many of Hamburger's characters shade into one another: the teacher who was a male cheerleader back in high school is just that much more sure of himself than the guy who can only dream of being able to walk proudly down the street in a pink T-shirt emblazoned with a flamboyant motto. They are versions of the same person -- a little more cocky here, a little more world-weary there -- and they face the same problem: not just how to know who they are, but how to seem to know. Which is a different task entirely. — Daniel Soar
Publishers Weekly
Callow young Americans grapple uneasily with Judaism and homosexuality as they navigate a cruddy, crumbling post-Communist Prague in this debut collection. The 10 hit-or-miss stories capture a narrow spectrum of expatriate life, populated by characters uncomfortable in their own skins; this awkwardness is the focus of Hamburger's best efforts. In "A Man of the Country," the protagonist endures a yearlong semiflirtation with massive, handsome Jirka, growing ever more frustrated ("I'm more than an asexual sidekick or polite, helpful English teacher"), but never quite willing to take the initiative. In "Exile," the artist-pornographer protagonist infiltrates a tiny Jewish community led by a fierce, closeted lesbian and makes friends with an eccentric Czech student of theology. The theology student also appears in "Jerusalem," seduced by insecure American expatriate Rachel after they meet at an Israeli folk-dancing class. Rachel, obsessed by her weight and her nagging Jewish mother, is little more than a caricature; this is also true of Debra, the activist protagonist of "You Say You Want a Revolution" ("She didn't want a family, not the traditional kind. She didn't want diapers and graham crackers and apple juice"), and Sarah, a strident tourist visiting Prague in "This Ground You Are Standing On." Hamburger overshoots the mark with these attempts at satire, but his sketches of oddball Prague natives are sharp and affectionate and his evocation of Prague in the 1990s (cheap Vietnamese markets, tough beef and sour cabbage, expatriate cafes) is vivid and unexpected. (Mar. 16) Forecast: Hamburger treads some of the same ground as Arthur Phillips (Prague) and Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated), but doesn't achieve the same momentum, though the collection will benefit from the current boom in post-Communist fiction. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in Prague, these stories explore the lives of the American expatriates, tourists, and drifters who found their way to that city in the post-Cold War era. Hamburger's characters are generally young, Jewish, and often gay and tend to be struggling with questions of identity and faith. In "A Man of the Country," an American falls for a straight Czech youth, with all of the misunderstandings and false starts of their relationship interpretable both symbolically and literally. "Garage Sale" concerns a gay Canadian English teacher who finds himself slowly, and surprisingly becoming involved with a Czech woman despite his misgivings and self-doubt. "Exile" involves an American artist drawn to an unusual synagogue that caters to non-Jews and to the mysterious Evzha, who may or may not be a prophet. "The Ground You Are Standing On" probes the reactions of two middle-aged Jewish tourists who board with an elderly woman in a house that had been Jewish-owned before the war. A provocative and often striking first collection, this is recommended for larger public libraries.-Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ten debut stories find Western expatriates settled-and, more usually, unsettled-in 1990s Prague. Several of the expats are gay men seeking love but making do with sex, mostly with unresponsive or emotionally neutral partners. The unnamed narrator of "Exile," for example, is an American-Jewish artist who supports himself with pornographic drawings, checking out Czech males to little effect, and returning to the States still unsure whether he's a real Jew. The protagonist of "A Man of the Country" achieves sexual gratification with Jirka, his affable, casually sensual English-language student-but realizes that he's only a momentary blip on Jirka's kaleidoscopic radar screen. And in "Garage Sale," Canadian teacher Donald quietly accepts exploitation by both the male dancer who squeezes him for "loans" and the cultured woman whom he dutifully marries. Hamburger offers fairly conventional satire on outsiders otherwise attracted by Prague's dark romantic history, such as Rachel (in "Jerusalem"), who finds herself drawn to an intense Jewish theology student yet finds the strength to dump him when she realizes his religiosity is her rival; and Debra (of "You Say You Want a Revolution"), "a rich girl in revolutionary's clothing" whose fiery espousal of what she labels "New Socialism" alienates her from American friends and Czech colleagues alike. Such stories are less interesting than "Control," which reveals the avaricious derelictions of a checkpoint security guard, and than the two best pieces here: "The Ground You Are Standing On," about the tourist Sarah Schroeder, who discovers, in evidence of ongoing anti-Semitism, her determination "to become a better Jew"; and "Law of Return," about theAmerican Michael, who overcomes a lifetime of passive indecision by declaring his Judaism and moving with his male cousin (and lover) to Israel. Interesting premises developed with varying success: an uneven yet promising first volume. Agent: Melanie Jackson
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812970937
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/9/2004
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Read an Excerpt

A Man of the Country

All fairy tales have in common not “once upon a time” but an unlikely pairing of characters who under normal circumstances would never have met. Like a former waiter from Madison, Wisconsin, and a giant.

Jirka is tall and tlusty, which translates roughly into “thick.” It is an equally useful word for describing people who weigh over two hundred pounds as well as books that clock in at over a thousand pages. His nose, chin, and fingers are fleshy and full of life. The only subtle thing about his looks is his smile, which curls up in the corners of his lips as if he’s winking at you.

We met on a subway platform. I was standing under an ad for the new Pizza Hut, my nose buried in a book with the cover wrapped in brown paper. A guy from Minnesota advised me to cover all my English books to avoid being hassled by undercover ticket inspectors on the subway.

Jirka picked me out of the crowd to ask if he could take a picture of my nose.

“It is regret I do not understand what you have said,” I told him in Czech.

“Where are you from?” he asked. He wore a bright yellow knit cap over his mangy curls and a dull blue winter jacket that looked like he’d slept in it. I wore a full-length Czech gray raincoat to hide my American clothes.

“I am a man of America but I speak a little of Czech.”

His eyes, already big and round like moons, widened. “You are American and you can speak Czech?”

I said, “Is it contrary to a law for an American to speak Czech?” Sometimes I was reckless in languages that were not my own.

“Wir können to speak the English,” he replied.

We rode the subway to Dejvice together and then transferred to the tram. Jirka, who worked in construction, wanted me to be his English teacher. After fumbling around in his coat pocket, he fished out a pencil stub and a wrinkled Dunkin’ Donuts napkin so he could write down his phone number. How much did I charge for lessons? Could I give him a list of books? He would buy them the very next day. He knew a good bookstore.

“Wait, wait,” I said.

“I no can wait,” he told me and pulled my arm. The other passengers in the tram stared. “I must besser speak English. It is important to make my fortune.”

“But this is my stop. I have to get off. Moja zastavka.”

Jirka looked deep into my eyes. “Please call to me tomorrow,” he begged.

A year passes, and I’m going home. Jirka the giant and I stand in front of a pink and green castle on a hill that inspired a novel by Kafka. We are not lovers and Jirka has no idea I ever wanted to be, but he has taken the day off work to spend it by my side like a lover would. The smog has melted, as if in honor of my leaving, and we have a clear view of the trams, the tourists on Charles Bridge, trees dragging their leaves over the water, paddleboats on the Vltava River, shadows, islands.

After a last look over the city, we walk down the craggy steps of Nerudova ulice into Mala Strana, a neighborhood of narrow streets where the buildings are painted in pastels and trimmed with scallops and curls like wedding cakes. Jirka scratches his chest with a proud, satisfied smile. His size and rocklike good looks turn heads everywhere. Even the American tourists wearing the red-and-black-checkered velvet hats for sale on Charles Bridge stop to look at him. I can’t decide if he’s unaware of the attention he’s getting or if he enjoys it.

We turn right onto Malostranske namesti and Jirka puts his hand on my neck. His touch feels cold and heavy, like a metal clamp. “Please, my friend.” He slips his whole arm around my shoulders and pulls me against his hip. I try not to get hard because we’ve never talked about it openly, this propensity of mine to be attracted to him.

Three teenage boys dressed in oversize sweatshirts and backwards baseball caps like the hip-hop artists they watch on Euro MTV are heading straight for us, but Jirka doesn’t drop his arm. He points at the show window of a store that imports Levi’s. “It is funny reklama for slips. How you say reklama?”

“Advertisement.” The ad in question, for men’s underwear by Diesel, consists of three close-up shots of crotches in various states of arousal as seen through white briefs. The word for underwear in Czech is slip. I ask him, “What kind of slip do you wear?”

Jirka hikes down the waist of his pants low enough for me to see his paisley-print bikini briefs.

The boys walk by and take no notice of us.

He used to live in an apartment in a complex of high-rise cement buildings called Cerveny vrch, or Red Hill. When you came over, you had to phone from the corner. Instead of letting down his golden hair, he’d open his window and throw you his keys.

“Why don’t you fix your buzzer?” I asked when I visited him the first time.

“I like to give keys out window,” Jirka said. He took my raincoat and pointed to a towel spread on the floor where I could leave my shoes.

Jirka rented his spare bedroom to Jason and Teal, a Canadian couple whom he never saw except passed out on their mattress, once next to a pool of vomit. Their backpacks, still stuffed with clothes, lay unzipped next to a stack of books covered in candle drippings, books like On the Road and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Jirka had taped an index card to the phone for them: “Jirka neni doma 5 Jirka no home.”

Pots of basil and thyme and baby tomatoes grew on the windowsill in Jirka’s kitchen. I sipped a glass of carbonated water while he consulted a water-stained cookbook his mother had given him when he moved to the big city from his village. The black-and-white illustrations showed ecstatic families in peasant clothing sitting down to a traditional Czech meal after a hard day’s work on a collective farm or the People’s Steel Factory. Jirka nodded thoughtfully as he leafed through a few pages, then tossed the book aside and scrubbed five potatoes in the sink. After boiling them into a mash, he mixed in two sticks of butter and a small tub of sour cream.

We ate without speaking. I stared at the tiles on the floor, the color of piss, and tried not to touch the sticky table. When Jirka finished, he wiped his bowl clean with a hunk of wheat bread. “If my English is no so good, you must say me, okay?” he said, licking the corners of his mouth for crumbs.

“Okay.”

“I want show you some things.” He wouldn’t let me wash the dishes so I piled them in the sink.

Jirka stored his treasures in a scratched china cabinet with its left door missing. I nodded my approval as he held up a few specimens from his collection of design magazines from Austria, a couple of crystals wrapped in rags, and incense.

“Smelling sticks are good for relaxation or when you must meditate. And here is my favorite auto.” Jirka reached over my head to grab a Mercedes ad tacked to the wall, and I inhaled a whiff of his spiky body odor, warm and honest. As I admired the car he wanted and could never afford, he grinned as if he was ready to offer me anything. “I like your nose,” he said and pointed a lamp at my face. “It is Judish nose, no?”

“Yes.” I braced for an insult.

“I like it.” He spread out his palms to frame my nose, and I smelled his armpits again. “Some-when I want take good photo of your nose. Ja?”

After I promised he could take a picture of my nose, Jirka lay back on his double bed and stretched his legs. He had a massive chest and thighs like horse flanks. There was so much of him, it was really impressive. “You want use toilet maybe?” he asked.

“No thanks.” I sat on the edge of the bed and stared up the folds of his shorts hanging loose. “We don’t say toilet in English. We say bathroom.”

“Why? When you no want bath, why say bathroom?”

“It’s softer, more suggestive. Maybe more polite.” Jirka shook his head to tell me he hadn’t understood. “Zdvorily.”

He snorted. “I think is strange, Americans must say they want take bathroom when they want take toilet. Is no normal.”

Amazingly, in all the time we’ve known each other, Jirka hasn’t yet managed to take a picture of my nose. But then he still has one day left to try.

We stop by my flat, which after today I no longer rent. My bags are sitting by the door, ready to transfer to his place where I’ll spend the night before waking up early to catch my plane. Pan Cerny, the landlord, has given up renting the flat because he can make four times as much money letting it out week by week to tourists or Western businessmen. He’s eager for me to go so he can accommodate a pair of insurance agents from Rome.

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Table of Contents

A Man of the Country 3
Jerusalem 23
The View from Stalin's Head 51
This Ground You are Standing on 71
Sympathetic Conversationalist 100
You Say You Want a Revolution 122
Garage Sale 149
Control 175
Law of Return 188
Exile 221
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2004

    A Must Read

    Ten very different, well written stories revolve around a common theme of being different, of being outside the bleak landscape of commonality. Aaron Hamburger explores the emotional lives of men and women struggling to exist within the limits of their differences to the world around them. Gays, straights, men, women, Jews, Czech¿s, American idealists, American tourists, and a thirteen-year-old boy whose nickname at school was ¿Daisy,¿ all struggle in their own way to understand, to come to terms with their place in the world. A good writer doesn¿t demand too much from the reader. These stories are complex and deal with important issues, but the Aaron Hamburger¿s writing style keeps you moving steadily along the storyline, usually to an unexpected and surprising ending. This book is definitely a must read for those interested in writers who can accurately delve into a multitude of emotional situations and keep you interested in the characters at the same time.

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