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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

Cultures Collide, Commingle in Russia

33 MOMENTS OF HAPPINESS: St. Petersburg Stories by Ingo Schulze; Alfred A. Knopf $23, 306 pages

March 30, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What Russians find tolerable, as the proverb goes, is fatal to Germans," muses a German businessman in one of Ingo Schulze's "33 Moments of Happiness," a fantastic and fantastical collection of stories set in St. Petersburg.

Schulze, a Dresdener himself, spent half of 1993 in the city working as a newspaper editor and, if these tales are valid records, pushing his own Teutonic tolerance to the limit--although, in a preface to the stories, Schulze claims merely to be the editor.

The author is a German businessman named Hofmann, who, "along with having a passion for karaoke . . . was a lover of literature." And indeed, there are moments when we catch the author--whoever he is--lip-syncing to the giants of Russian literature: Bulgakov, Nabokov, Pushkin and Chekhov. And in homage to Dostoevsky, there's even a latter-day Alyosha Karamazov sitting at the feet of a dilapidated and degenerate Father Zossima in the ruins of communism and democracy known as the time of Yeltsin.

Modern times have brought to the St. Petersburg of "33 Moments of Happiness" a flavor of mistrust that wipes out literary memories of herring and black bread. The bathhouse, the sacred banya, becomes an abattoir where everything and everyone is edible. The dacha in the woods loses its Tolstoy fragrance, becoming a sound stage for "Peter and the Wolf" meets "The Shining." Bullet-riddled Wehrmacht helmets, remnants of a stunning defeat when the Germans were "caught in a pincer" between two Russian armies, earn more on the black market than relics from the time of Nicholas and Alexandra.

"The madness of the czars is the only culture they have," a German journalist reports, "but they manage to ruin even that." It's Schulze, this time, who has St. Petersburg caught in a pincer. All 33 of his stories squeeze the question of toleration to the limit. "What Russians find tolerable, as the proverb goes, is fatal to Germans." The question remains: Is this a Russian proverb or a German? Do we cite Gogol as the author of the saw?

Or rather, do we mark the fingerprints of the early 19th century German composer and writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, best known in the West today as the author of the story "The Nutcracker," but revered in Germany as the Stephen King, or better yet, the Garcia Marquez of his time. Hoffmann (the 19th century one with two Fs and not the purported author of "33 Moments of Happiness") was himself born in the pincer of an East Prussian city, variously called Konigsberg or Kaliningrad according to the whim of its conqueror. And Schulze, in this bravura performance, catches with precise discomfort the swift barometric changes that are the mark of Hoffmann.

One typical story is a wind-up fairy tale in which the spring goes suddenly, chillingly bust. Antonina Antonovna, a widow with three young daughters, has been driven into poverty by the fall of the communists. Arriving at her factory job one day, Antonina discovers that massive inflation has fumed her meager salary to sawdust. She faints, only to find herself in the arms of a young American, who, mirabile dictu, turns out to be the new director of the factory. He takes Antonina home and, in short order, marries her eldest daughter, Vera. Happy ending?

"When Vera died," the author tells us in his stunning Hoffmann twist, "Nick married her beautiful sister Annushka, and when Annushka died, Nick married the even more beautiful Tamara. Antonina Antonovna shed tears at each wedding."

This supremely confident debut of a young German writer ought to silence the jingo bells set off by the recent purchase of Random House by Bertelsmann. It is hardly appeasement to say that our pallid American bestseller realists can learn much from writers like Schulze, who remind us that the fantastical tradition of Hoffmann is alive and well, even if it repeats itself the second time as karaoke in Russia.

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