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Separation Anxiety : COUPLINGS. By Peter Schneider . Translated From the German by Philip Boehm (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $24, 291 pp.)

September 22, 1996|RICHARD EDER

The German writer Peter Schneider is the chronicler of no-man's-land. In "The Wall Jumper," a book of reportage and reflection, and now in the novel "Couplings," this is the political and psychological space that has separated and bound East and West Germany.

More generally, it is the space that lies between the Robert Frost line--"Something there is that does not love a wall"--and the opposite adage, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Up to 1989, when Berlin's wall was chipped into thousands of souvenirs, there had been a painful dialogue between the estranged Germanys. Ever since, there has been a painful estrangement in their union. "Couplings" is set in the mid-1980s but its chilly temperature, its disquiet and its sense of no bottom anywhere mark a continuum between then and now.

A nation's literature draws much of its character from the place or lack of place it assigns to society. In postwar British fiction, society has been very visible--a puppet-show Pantaloon upon which the characters vent their rage, usually comic.

In the most distinctive American fiction of the past 50 years, the national dimension has been largely tacit. (There are exceptions: the novels of John Marquand, John O'Hara, Louis Auchincloss and Tom Wolfe and, more vitally, black and other minority fiction.)

Central European writing since the '50s also makes society virtually nonexistent--with communism treated as an unburied corpse--but its absence is tragedy and comedy, and keenly sensed. The characters, like fish in a dried-up sea, flop about trying to invent an atmosphere to breathe.

So it is with "Couplings," Schneider's first novel and closely modeled on the fiction of the Czech Milan Kundera. As in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," the characters' erotic combinations, permutations, couplings and decouplings are told in a succession of sketches. It is like dealing Tarot cards. The images, picturesque in themselves, are a venture at telling a cloudy fortune; in this case, Germany's.

Schneider's characters, like Kundera's, are sentient and sophisticated figures at a time when the constraints of Communist rule persist but its energy has entirely vanished. Public life, once stridently assertive, has gone silent. Power remains in place--not to do anything but to prevent anything being done.

Three couples navigate erratically among the invisible markers on both sides of Berlin's wall. There is Eduard, a molecular biologist, and Andre, a composer, both of them West Berliners, and Theo, an East Berlin poet. Their women--Klara, Esther and Pauline--are frailly attached and given less specific identities.

The friends sit in a cafe on the western side of the city. (Theo's easy access raises the hint of collaboration with the Stasi, or secret police, that still taints many East German intellectuals.) They are discussing "the strain of separation virus" that infects their country. It is the book's double image: the malaise of German dividedness and the larger instability of individual attachments.

The three men vow that in a year they will still be with their partners. Each has his own anti-viral plan--and each is absurd. The all-but-infertile Eduard decides to have a child with Klara. Andre, an uncontrollable philanderer, will avoid dangerous misunderstandings by giving Esther a pledge of infidelity. Theo will keep his and Pauline's passion alive by avoiding conjugal sex altogether.

By the time the year is up, Klara has had a breakdown and Eduard has found another lover. Esther has left Andre--after cutting up his shirts--while he, dying of cancer, is having a cheerful affair with his doctor. To tempt Theo back to bed, Pauline writes him sexy letters from an imaginary poetry groupie, finally going so far as to set up a fake rendezvous. The Stasi, which by the mid-'80s could deal only with imaginary events, diligently intervenes.

These sardonic absurdities bear a darker message. The German illness is endemic: Separation may be a virus, but by now there is a disability that makes the host unable to flourish without it, wall or no wall.

"Couplings" touches on other aspects of German unease, notably the past. Eduard's biology students protest animal experimentation by donning Mickey Mouse masks in his class and demanding an end to "mouse concentration camps." Liberal and open-minded (though at one point he finds himself making an anti-Semitic remark to Theo, who is Jewish), Eduard insists that he too is against the abuse of animals. On the other hand, only by using mice can he conduct his research into muscular dystrophy.

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