Prize-winning German writer Ingo Schulze's first novel, Simple Stories, is a marvel of storytelling and craft. Set in the East German town of Altenburg after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it deftly leaps among an array of confused characters caught in the crossroads of their country’s history: a lovelorn waitress who falls for a visiting West German investor; an art historian turned traveling salesman; a former Communist official plagued by his past; an unsuccessful writer who asks his neighbor to break his leg so that he can continue to live on welfare.
Schulze skillfully intercuts an assortment of moving and comic vignettes about seemingly unconnected people, gradually linking them into an exhilarating whole of tidal unity and emotional force, until we see that all the time we have been reading a novel in glittering fragments, spun by a master. With a piercing eye for detail and a magical ear for dialogue, Schulze portrays the tragi-comedy of ordinary people caught up in the last great historical upheaval of the century.
About the Author
Ingo Schulze lives in Dresden, Germany
Read an Excerpt
Renate Meurer tells about a bus trip in February '90 when the wall was already gone, but the two Germanys were not. In celebration of their twentieth wedding anniversary, the Meurers are in the West for the first time, in Italy for the first time. A bus breakdown outside Assisi drives a fellow passenger, Dieter Schubert, to an act of desperation.
Shared memories and provisions.
It just came at the wrong time. Five days on a bus: Venice, Florence, Assisi. It all sounded like Honolulu to me. I asked Martin and Pit how they even came up with the idea and where exactly the money was coming from and how did they picture us taking an illegal trip for our twentieth anniversary?
I was depending on Ernst not to go along with it. The last few months had been hell for him. We had anything but Italy on our minds. But he didn't say a word. And in the middle of January, he asked if we shouldn't be making some preparations we were supposed to leave on February 16, a Friday during school break and how were we supposed to get over the Italian border, the Austrian border, with our GDR papers? I figured that at the latest, once I'd told him what the kids had told me how we'd be getting West German IDs from a travel agency in Munich, counterfeit most likely that'd be that, you could count Ernst Meurer out. But he just asked whether that had been why we'd had the two passport photos taken. "Yes," I said, "the two passport photos, our birth dates, height, and color of eyes that's all they need."
It was just like always. We packed clothes in our dark green suitcase, put dishes, cutlery, and food in the black-and-red- checked bag: canned sausages and fish, bread, eggs, butter, cheese, salt, pepper, zwieback, apples, oranges, and two thermoses, one for coffee, one for tea. Pit drove us to Bayreuth. At the border they asked where we were going, and Pit said, "Shopping."
The train stopped in every jerkwater town. Except for snow, streetlights, cars, and stations, I didn't see much. We were sitting with men on their way to work. I didn't really think about Italy until Ernst peeled an orange.
At the station in Munich he and Ernst must have recognized each other. I didn't pick up on it. How was I supposed to know what he looked like? I couldn't even have told you his real name.
I remember him from about Venice on. An average-sized man with quick movements and a badly fitting glass eye that never blinked. He was dragging some huge book around with him, one finger stuck in between pages, so that whenever Gabriela, our Italian tour guide, explained something, he could put his two cents in. Your typical know-it-all. He kept pushing back his salt-and-pepper hair, which would promptly fall down over his forehead and eyebrows again.
I recognized the Doges' Palace and the column with the lion from TV. The Venetian women even those my age wore short skirts and beautiful, old-fashioned caps. We had all dressed too warmly.
During the day, so that we could be on our own, we took along our bag of supplies with a couple of cans, bread, and apples. We ate in the room in the evening. Ernst and I didn't talk much, but at least more than we had over the last months. "Una gondola per favore," he shouted one morning while washing up. On the whole, I had the impression that Ernst liked Italy. Once he even took my hand and held it tight.
He never said one word about him. Not till the very end. Although in Florence, while we were waiting for everybody to come down from the bell tower, Ernst asked, "Where's our mountaineer?" I didn't pay it much attention or maybe I thought the two of them had talked at some point Ernst always went down to breakfast before me. Then he mentioned something about doing pull-ups in a doorway. Before that, in Padua, the mountaineer had insisted we stop and visit some chapel or arena that wasn't even on the tour. I turned around he was sitting way at the back. His glance said that nothing was going to bother him and was directed straight at the windshield, as if we all were there to finally get this gentleman where he was going. Maybe I'm being unfair, maybe I wouldn't even remember if it hadn't been for the brouhaha later on, maybe I've got the sequence of events mixed up, too, but I'm not inventing any of it.
You have to try to imagine it. Suddenly you're in Italy and have a West German passport. My name was Ursula and Ernst was Bodo, we lived in Straubing, Bavaria. I've forgotten our last names. You wake up on the other side of the world and are amazed to find yourself eating and drinking just like at home, putting one foot in front of the other as if this were all perfectly natural. Brushing my teeth and looking into the mirror, I found it even harder to believe that I was in Italy.
Before we left Florence for Assisi on our last day, the bus stopped in a parking lot so we could look back at the city. The sky was overcast. Ernst bought a plate with a picture of Dante and gave it to me an anniversary present.
Then we drove through rain, and slowly it turned so foggy that I couldn't see anything but guardrails and fell asleep.
When Ernst woke me up, the others were already getting off. We had stopped at a gas station. There was something wrong with the motor or the muffler. Snow was falling on the umbrellas, and cars had their headlights on great weather for a breakdown. Our driver went looking for a phone. I can still remember his gestures exactly, the way he kept crossing and uncrossing his forearms. Gabriela announced that we'd have to wait for repairs. She suggested we take in the sights of Perugia.
We got our coats out and marched up to the old city in single file, with Gabriela and the mountaineer in the lead. He was upset and insisted he be driven to Assisi, which he claimed could be seen from here in good weather.
"So close you can touch it," he kept saying. When we were damn lucky not to be milling around by the autobahn or on some country road.
The snow was sticking to the sidewalks by now. The art museum and the churches were closed lunch break. Gabriela led us to the Maggiore Fountain, said a few things about the town hall and the cathedral, which loomed up immense, its walls vanishing into the fog. The façade had remained unfinished now for over five hundred years, she said, to which a woman from Plauen remarked that compared to that the GDR didn't come off so bad. She was constantly making cracks. Ernst never reacted. He simply ignored her.
The group scattered into various restaurants on the piazza. Ours was the Victoria.
Up till now we'd spent money only on the Dante plate and a few cups of coffee. Which is why we decided to order something. The waiter in his long white apron snaked his way among the few tables, all suddenly full. Sometimes he would freeze in mid-motion and lean his upper body in the direction of a summons. The only place he suddenly went deaf was in front of the TV, waiting for a skier to cross the finish line. At our table were two men from Dresden, a pediatrician and a stage designer, who both could manage a little Italian and explained the menu for us. Ernst tried to signal the waiter while I made sure his finger didn't slip off the line pizza con funghi.
Suddenly the pediatrician stood up. And since he was staring out the window, I turned around. People were storming toward us from the other side of the square, like kids in a snowball fight Gabriela wearing mittens, the others right behind her, in a screaming, wedge-shaped swarm.
There was a scraping of chairs all around us, and then a surge of tramping feet as everyone tried to get past the waiter and to the door. We followed them to the cathedral, where a little cluster had gathered on the steps outside the side entrance.
The mountaineer was standing twelve, fifteen feet up, on one of the little ledges, arms outstretched, shoulders pressed to the wall. It was strangely silent, as if the fellow up there were a sleepwalker who might wake up at the slightest sound and fall off. Gabriela kept blinking up through the snowflakes. Others shielded their eyes with their hands. His hiking shoes lay on the ground directly below him.
He thrust his head forward and gazed down at us like a one-eyed bird. Both socks drooped slightly out over his toes. The climb looked as if it would be no problem for someone with a little practice. He had probably worked his way up the hewn stones to the little pulpit beside the portal, got up on its railing, and then used jutting stones and rusted-out crannies for handholds.
"Don't look down," a man shouted. With that, the mountaineer let go with his left arm, spun around with one stiff step, and instantly pressed up against the wall again. His fingers were clutching the next ledge up. His feet groped along the wall. He scaled higher, his legs moving like a frog's. Then he was able to brace himself on the little roof above the window.
Ernst tugged my elbow. "Let's get out of here!" he whispered. Herr Sonneberger, a redheaded giant of a man, was the first to start taking pictures. Gabriela was cursing, "If he dares to jump!" She wandered about among us, clutching at the turned-up collar of her coat, and then hurried down the steps toward a policewoman, whose white helmet reminded me of someone in a carnival parade. The only part of Gabriela's head visible from behind was the tall coiled tower of her braid. The policewoman said something into her hand radio.
The woman from Plauen thought that this was getting serious. "Hey, Herbert," she called, "climb down, Herbert! Come on, get down!" Herr Sonneberger interrupted her. We couldn't call him Herbert, he said. Herbert was just the name on his fake passport. With that, everyone fell silent, or just whispered.
I was annoyed with Ernst, at the way he kept tugging at me. I was about to step back away from him when he grabbed me by the arm. "Nothing's going to happen to him," he hissed. "That's Zeus. Come on!"
"Can't be!" It burst out of me. It had been ten, fifteen years since I had last heard that name. "The Zeus?"
Gabriela turned around. "Is that his name, Zeus?"
Suddenly everyone was looking at us.
"Is his name Zeus?"
"He's not going to fall," Ernst said.
"Zeus?" someone asked in a loud voice. And now they were all shouting "Zeus, Zeus," as if they had finally found the password that they all had been fervently hoping would break the silence. Cries of apparent liberation:
And they didn't stop until he vanished into swaths of fog. Several people stretched out their arms to point to where they had last seen Zeus. Cameras with telephoto lenses were now turned into binoculars and passed around. One sock fell from the fog into the semicircle we had formed around his shoes. The second followed shortly thereafter. It scared me both times.
Suddenly, like some spook, Zeus appeared again. He bent forward, so far that some people screamed and pushed back. Panic could easily have erupted. It was incredible how he could keep his balance up there. Spit seeped from between his lips, dangled like a spider on its thread, separated, and hit the snow soundlessly. Body in contortions and mouth askew he reminded me of the gargoyles in Naumburg or Prague he began to orate.
Of course no one knew who he meant when he talked about "Red Meurer." The Italians didn't understand him in any case. He called Ernst "the big shot in the green anorak" and stretched out one arm to point at us. No one could figure out what he wanted. What amazed me most was how he found the strength to shout, to shout with such rage. It had all happened long ago. And Ernst didn't like doing it at the time, I'm sure of that. At home he'd always just called him by his nickname, "Zeus." His real name was Schubert, Dieter Schubert.
If you didn't look right at him, you just heard stupid shouting. I thought how Zeus could fall at any moment and come crashing down right at our feet. I pictured everyone trying to push forward to get a look at him. And how no one would have the courage to touch him. His body would look unscathed, the way dead animals sometimes look by the side of the road, with only the blood oozing out of them to hint at what has happened. Head lowered, Gabriela was now talking to herself.
It took a long time for Zeus to shut up at last, as if the snow had finally suffocated him. Then he started inching his way toward the gutter on his left. His movements had become much more cautious and hesitant, as if the sleepwalker had in fact awakened.
"It's over now," I said to Ernst, and linked my arm in his. I meant the shouting, of course. Ernst kept his hands in his pockets and stared at Gabriela's towering coiled braid.
Zeus eased his way down the lightning rod. Carabinieri were there to receive him and surround him while he put on his socks and snow-covered shoes. A fire engine pulled up, its blue light flashing. Gabriela crossed herself. She announced the time when we should all be back at the bus, then left with Zeus and the carabinieri. Our group split up again. The waiter in his long apron hurried ahead to the Victoria.
Ernst and I stood there for a while. Only his fingertips were visible from the long sleeves of his new anorak. I felt chilled, and we started walking to the bus.
Suddenly Ernst asked, "Do you smell something?"
"Yes," I said, and thought he meant the exhaust. Everything smelled different here.
"Strawberries!" he cried. "It smells like strawberries." About the only thing we grew in our garden was strawberries, and we kept track of the years according to how many tortes I could make from them. Coffee hour was a very solemn occasion when I announced: This is the last torte. Our last strawberries of the year. I could see our garden before me and the little beer garden, "The Fox Den." And then I said, "The empty beer glasses. Can you smell them, all the empty beer glasses on the side table out in the sun?"
"Yes," Ernst said, "a whole tray full."
I'm certain that we both pictured the same thing for a while, the old scratched tray and the glasses with a red dot at the bottom. And our strawberries.
The driver opened the door. I invited him to eat with us. He had rolled up his sleeves. He wiped his greasy hands on a rag and dug in. Even though all our meals, except for the skimpy hotel breakfasts, had come from our provisions, we still had plenty of everything left, including apples. We were pretty hungry ourselves. We were still eating when the driver eased into his seat to take a little nap before the drive back. The snow had already melted again.
Why am I telling this? Because a person forgets so quickly. Although it's not all that long ago that Ernst and I were still thinking the same thoughts and dragging around canned food in a black-and-red-checked bag.