The View from Stalin’s Head
By Aaron Hamburger
Random House. 245 pages. $12.95.
If recent literary fiction is any indication, Prague is giving Brooklyn a run for its money in terms of attracting young, disaffected American Jewish men. Gary Shteyngart’s “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” returns a post-Soviet Manhattanite slacker back not to the St. Petersburg of his birth, but to a thinly-veiled Prague, and Jonathan Safran Foer wrote the first draft of “Everything Is Illuminated” in an apartment there. Now another young American Jew, Aaron Hamburger, has published a collection of stories about the expatriate experience in the Czech Republic, in “The View From Stalin’s Head.”
Prague’s ascendance as a Jewish hotspot is ironic and perhaps even macabre. While the city claims its share of Jewish history — from the Maharal and his Golem to Kafka — it never was a world center of yidishkayt like, say, Warsaw. So why have all these American boychiks flocked to Prague for their quarter-life crises? Is this a bizarre consequence of Hitler’s decision to set the city aside as a museum of an extinct race, preserving its Old Jewish Quarter’s synagogues and graveyard, which are now major tourist destinations? Or is it just that Prague is less dreary than Warsaw, less off-puttingly German than Berlin, less obscure than Ljubljana, Slovenia, and less expensive than Vienna? The answer might simply be found in the bottles of Budvar that only cost 40 cents.
Hamburger’s characters themselves have no idea what they’re doing there. One vacationing middle-aged couple, the protagonists of “The Ground You Are Standing On,” chose it by default: “London, Paris, and Rome were out of their budget.” The hero of “Exile” reports he “moved to Prague to escape the capitalist grind of San Francisco,” though he was hardly an investment banker — he earns his keep churning out smutty drawings. Like their literary forerunners, who made life abroad hot in the first half of the 20th century, Hamburger’s transplanted Americans are desperately Lost.
Hamburger also alerts us to the standard misconceptions Americans lug with them to Prague, like the aunt who can’t distinguish Czechoslovakia from Yugoslavia and warns her nephew to “watch out for the civil war.” The pornographer mentioned above argues, “I’m not a tourist… I live here,” but still gets caught calling his new home Eastern Europe, almost wishfully, when the locals and guidebooks know it as Central.
Hamburger succeeds in capturing these and other telltale details of the all-too-familiar Prague experience. Word for word, the sentence he puts into the mouth of an undercover subway ticket-checker — “We go to police or you pay eight hundred crowns now”— welcomed me to the city a few years back. And Hamburger, who like many of his characters lived in Prague and taught English to Czechs, has a gift for capturing the mangled but well-intentioned English spoken by the natives. One local, for example, complains that a neighborhood “is a very stupid place for living,” communicating his feeling precisely despite his wonky diction. Though lacking the exuberance of Safran Foer’s impossibly elaborate ESL, Hamburger’s dialogue recreates the genuine and entertaining lilt of foreigners’ English.
Such an eye for detail and an ear for speech are two tremendous assets for a writer, but it takes much more than these to craft convincing and affecting characters and stories. Too often in “The View From Stalin’s Head,” Hamburger fails to do so. Perhaps the most disappointing piece here, “You Say You Want a Revolution” exhibits in exaggerated form the flaws that manifest themselves throughout the book.
In the story, Debra, a furious lefty ideologue — heavy on the fury and light on the ideas — reluctantly greets Jake and Linda Pressman upon their arrival in Prague. Jake is a hotshot partner in Debra’s father’s law firm, so everyone feels obliged to be nice, but Debra’s disdain for the bourgeois Pressmans seethes out of her along with her contempt for capitalism, America and her own family. The only person less polite than Debra is the author, who exposes everyone involved as vapid, shallow and self-serving. Linda, a part-time nutritionist, has a motto, apparently: “If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: ‘Muffins are cake!’” Jake, horror of horrors, trails beautiful women with his eyes despite his wife’s presence, and wears a gold bracelet. Though good for quick laughs, this reductionist approach to his characters doesn’t serve Hamburger well in the long run. When Debra, a page after being introduced, overreacts to an overdone restaurant — “In a truly egalitarian society, all restaurants would be self-service buffets” — it’s already clear she has lost all sense of perspective. So it comes as no surprise 24 pages later that she ends up alone on a stage mumbling, “IMF, WTO, the World Bank,” to an audience of locals who believe she might be insane. There’s zero payoff.
In the handful of stories in which Hamburger musters more sympathy for his creations, the results are impressive. The opening story, “A Man of the Country,” describes a bafflingly touching romantic liaison between a very odd couple of men: a young gay American Jew and an unself-consciously curious but straight Czech. The distance they overcome in forging a relationship of any sort at all becomes obvious when they finally get naked and the Czech exclaims, with genuine surprise, “Your penis is missing something!”
The most compelling story here, “The Law of Return,” airlifts a couple of Americans from Prague to Israel: Michael, a gay man, and Becky, his longtime beard. Under the cover of visiting an imperious Israeli aunt, Michael hopes to resume relations with his cousin Eli, who became his lover during the Sabra’s post-IDF tour of Europe. Conveyed through limited third-person narrative, first from Michael’s, then Eli’s, then Becky’s perspective, the story offhandedly poses tough and fascinating questions: If two gay lovers can never have children, what does it matter if they’re cousins, or for that matter, siblings? Might the disappearance of the stigma against homosexuality erode the stigma against incest? This issue crops up in the background, while the real emotional punch at the end of “The Law of Return” derives from Becky’s disappointment at losing her pseudo-boyfriend, who, while not exactly her bashert, is better than nothing. On one level, when Michael ditches her, she gets what she deserves — why did she agree to front as his girlfriend for all these years, knowing she wouldn’t end up with him? Yet with its subtly shifting perspectives, the story is a reminder of how callous two self-centered lovers can be to those orbiting around them.
In this story and a couple of others, “The View From Stalin’s Head” exhibits Hamburger’s impressive talent and reflects his insight into the American experience abroad. As a whole, though, the book resembles a trip to Central Europe without a guidebook: many wrong turns and a great deal of frustration, interspersed with rare points of genuine interest and brief moments of beauty.
[Originally published in the Forward.]