Writing in the mid-1990s in post-Communist Poland, Andrzej Sapkowski produced The Time of Contempt. Writing in the mid-1990s in post-Communist eastern Germany, Ingo Schulze produced Simple Storys (the plural is not correct in German either; it’s symptomatic of the anglicisms and pseudo-anglicisms that entered the language at that time).
The two books could hardly be more different. Sapkowski wrote fantastic adventures in which Poland’s history and traditions can be discerned, if a reader knows where to look. Schulze wrote 29 closely observed, hyper-realistic vignettes about people in a small East German city, in which the past is both omnipresent and invisible, mostly present in the things that the characters do not talk about, but occasionally bursting out to shape their lives and choices.
Simple Storys is brilliant, and demanding. Writing sometimes in the first person, sometimes in a tightly limited third person, Schulze shows what his characters do, and very little else. His stripped-down language leaves much of the construction of the story to the reader. There is virtually no signposting, very little is explicitly stated about characters’ inner states, even the identification of speakers in a scene is omitted as often as not. This method suits the down-and-out atmosphere of provincial eastern Germany — the book is subtitled “A novel from the East German provinces” — in the years following the collapse of the Communist system. The old ways have fallen away, and people are feeling their way toward how to get by in a newly unified Germany.
The political seems distant, and then it transpires that one character had informed on another years before, and the repercussions are still echoing. Or another had been fired in the political housecleaning that swept East German institutions such as schools and universities. Or that yet another had gone from the security services into bookkeeping, but still had a thriving sideline in using inside knowledge to settle scores.
But Schulze does not give political events or causes any greater weight than the other events that he describes in his stories. Which is to say, practically no weight at all, as he describes things that happen in an affectless style that occasionally, unaccountably lapses into the beautiful. His characters’ live intersect through affairs, friendships, coincidences; most of the stories start in media res, and there isn’t a Hollywood character arc to be found anywhere in the novel’s 313 pages.
They are simple stories. And yet. And yet they perfectly capture a period, a culture, a set of circumstances that was vanishing around Schulze even as he was writing its definitive chronicle. Simple Storys reminded me of Mutmaßungen über Jakob by Uwe Johnson, another great East German novel, but one that is also dependent on readers’ historical knowledge to make sense of the characters’ actions. When the silences are as important as the words on the page, a work requires its readers to know where the silences are, what they mean, and as the period of the book recedes into history, it becomes less and less accessible. The East German provinces of Simple Storys are already 20 years gone, and the silences are getting more difficult to hear.