"Adam & Evelyn" by Ingo Schulze. Translated from the German by John E. Woods. Knopf. 282 pages. $28.
By Adera Causey
Life behind the former iron curtain was the stuff of spy novels and darkly imagined Gulag conditions. Western romances sometimes further exploited this with stories of star-crossed loves and risky defections. But a love story that comes from the other side of the border has been less commonly seen in the West, particularly one that brings out ambivalent views on impending moves towards democracy. Dresden-born Ingo Schulze takes on just this theme with his recently translated "Adam & Evelyn."
The cover image and barely altered names of the titular main characters offer clear parallels to the Genesis story, a theme that runs subtly throughout the book. And in this story, just as in Edenic times, love is tinged with the curses of a new type of fall from grace.
Adam, a celebrated East German tailor and designer, is known for his penchant for transactional relationships with clients that begin with a dress fabric sample and end between bed sheets. His young partner, Evelyn, is frustrated by her dead-end waitressing job and her inability to finish the art history degree she was forced to abort.
Walking in on one of Adam's tailor trysts takes her to the end of her rope and causes her to flee on a trip that she had intended to take with Adam, one for which they had been granted special papers to travel into the West. But instead of Adam by her side, she goes with conniving coworker Simone and Simone's western cousin Michael, a man Simone hopes to marry in order to gain papers to live on the other side.
In hot pursuit, Adam follows her in his 1961 communist clunker, accompanied by the couple's pet turtle, the only symbol of domestic responsibility they have in their lives. In his travels, he also picks up a hitchhiking refugee named Katja who he finds soaking wet after a failed attempt to swim to freedom.
The front trio is well aware of the man, girl and turtle behind them and as each have their own adventures, they all intersect in travels that also involve interactions with various officials who are charting their every move. Ultimately, they all meet up at the intended location, Evelyn's friend Pepi's home, where Evelyn and Adam were planning to stay on their initially planned sojourn. There the triangles multiply in a frolicking wild time as each character vies for, or runs from, another character's love while Adam basks in the attention of Pepi's adoring family, who are fans of his design work.
These satirically comic adventures are set in a culturally specific context, an understanding of which is aided by an appendix timeline of the events leading up to the Berlin Wall, a good refresher for anyone not intimately familiar with all of those details. This situation lends a weight to the context but a surprising political apathy or perhaps even fatigue is found in the characters as well.
These figures, long accepting of a type of surveillance and life management that to us in the west seems antithetical to our sense of country, carry uncertainty about any change from this lifestyle they've always known. As much as Katja seemingly desperately seeks freedom when it is forbidden, she has second thoughts when change is offered up to her.
Evelyn, who was truly beaten down by the former system, embraces the work-toward-personal-fulfillment ethos of the West; however Adam's artistic pride prevents him from really relishing freedom in a land of fairly well designed and accessible off-the-rack clothing that lessens the need for his designs. The mixed bag of emotions ebbs and flows and affects the relational emotions among the characters.
The traditional romance story line of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, cue music and happily ever after credits is still found here. But when that boy and that girl exist in a world in flux, we become first-hand witnesses to the genesis and the fall of Adam and Evelyn.
Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.