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Checkpoint Charlie

EDUARD'S HOMECOMING A Novel; By Peter Schneider, Translated from the German by John Brownjohn; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 307 pp., $25

August 20, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI

Thanks to the package tour and the Internet, the museum of globalization has already taken on the moth-eaten look of a taxidermist's back room. It's been 25 years, after all, since the golden arches began to shine on the Boul' Mich, and Parisian horror has long since given way to the Confucian irony of Big Macs in Beijing. Video nights in Katmandu have beamed Hollywood into the nether corners of the globe, and young Turks in boardrooms around the world sip Diet Coke and shout into their Nextels, "Where's the beef?"

So the bar of surprise is high, over which one might expect the German writer Peter Schneider to vault with his new novel about the new Berlin, "Eduard's Homecoming." Eduard Hoffman is the prodigal son born in Berlin after the war, a scientist returning to his native city after a decade in California, where he has acquired a wife and three children. The motives for his return are many--an invitation to work on a project of genetic mapping at the Molecular Biology Institute, a curiosity to see what has become of the now-unified city he last saw before the fall of the wall. But primary among them is the notification that he and his brother have inherited an apartment house in an up-and-coming section of the old East Berlin that may make him a millionaire.

Yet reuniting Eduard and his patrimony turns out to be more difficult than tearing down the wall. The building is inhabited by squatters who live free while Eduard foots their utility bills. Plus, one of the squatters is a fiercely pregnant woman with more than a passing resemblance to the figure of Liberty in "Liberty Leading the People," Delacroix's masterpiece of political art. The continuing battle between the socialist ideals of the old Ossis of the East and the capitalist goals of the Wessis of the West make Eduard's battle one with financial, political and social ramifications.

If that weren't bad enough, Eduard begins to suspect that his beautiful American wife, Jenny, has been faking her orgasms since the beginning of their marriage. "Eduard realized that his return to Berlin had presented him with two problems at once. He had come into an inheritance that threatened to ruin him financially, even though it might not legally be his, and he was leading a married life which, though blessed with three children, lacked nature's ultimate seal of approval."

In the course of his search, he reestablishes contact with an old friend turned real estate lawyer who introduces him to Eastern thugs with their own solutions, and another old friend, Theo, turned poet and playwright, who is spending his last neurotic days piecing together the thousands of pages that the Stasi, the East German Secret Police, kept on him, thanks to their informer, Theo's younger brother. Theo was "embarking on a process of remembrance and clearance, doggedly going it alone and following the thread of his own history, while others in the city outside were hurriedly erecting palaces of glass and marble on the ruins of the past."

*

Nothing could describe Eduard's search better as he wanders through a Berlin undergoing its own massive reconstruction, "the city's body laid open like that of a patient on a gigantic, brightly lit operating table." As his ownership is challenged, he follows alleys of documents establishing his late grandfather's claim to the apartment building, in an attempt to establish whether the old man had legally or underhandedly obtained the house from its Jewish owners in the days leading up to the ascent of Hitler in 1933. While the walls still seem to separate Jews from Nazis, East from West, one journalist tells Eduard, "Wessis versus Ossis--that's boring. The true line of demarcation runs between those Ossis who remained here and were showered with Party prizes for their non-collaboration, and the others, who were jailed or exiled for non-collaboration and showered with West German prizes for the same thing."

Lines of demarcation, tests, which side are you on? The answers, the ability to pass, are central to Eduard's life. But documents, titles of ownership, electric bills and leases prove less significant in Eduard's existential Berlin than the way he responds to the challenges that his squatters, his colleagues, his lawyer, his mistress and ultimately his wife breathe in his face.

The novel is filled with enough witty observations to make a Teutonophile chuckle. "The main privilege enjoyed by professors as opposed to junior staffers consisted in voluntarily making it their duty to fulfill the Institute's expectations." But it would take a real hard-core Checkpoint Charlie to chuckle at each one of Schneider's sociopolitical observations about the new Berlin. Even then, one suspects that those in the know know more. To make matters worse, the translation by John Brownjohn has retained all the thick mortar of German syntax, making many of the sentences as difficult to penetrate as the pre-'89 wall.

What "Eduard's Homecoming" lacks above all is a voice to make the political poetical. As infuriating as the bureaucracy that Eduard confronts is, Schneider is no Kafka and Eduard is no K. The book is more Brecht, but Brecht without the palliative of Weill's music, more "Threepenny Operational Manual" than "Opera." Indeed, the economic and political twist that Eduard dances with the squatters at the end of the novel is reminiscent of the G.W. Pabst film version of "The Threepenny Opera," in which the beggar, the highwayman and the police chief join forces and open a bank--notes for a piece of agitprop that ring with a distant black and white tone--leaving Brecht's Pirate Jenny, Eduard's wife Jenny and, I suspect, many of Schneider's readers, writhing unsatisfied.

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