German writer’s biblical take on adultery and communism lacks bite
Adam and EvelynIngo Schulze
(Knopf · hardcover · $27.95)
I've said it before, I'll say it again: Literary translation is like throwing a violet into a crucible. Actually it was someone else who said that. Whoever said it first is inconsequential. But it rings true in Adam and Evelyn, a love story by German writer Ingo Schulze.
Almost from Page 1, the text seems bland and listless. Maybe the poetry of Schulze’s writing is lost in translation. That seems reasonable. It takes thousands of years for a language to develop its beauty. And since every language is unique, it's hard to transport that je ne sais quoi across tongues. Rarely is it executed successfully. If you don't believe me, try listening to Italian opera translated into English.
Adam and Evelyn is probably beautiful in German. German is, after all, the language of love. Or was that French? Or Spanish?
On the other hand, maybe the book is also bad in German. It's possible.
It doesn't matter. The point is, the story is irredeemably dull. Bill Moyers isn't this boring. And the biblical reference in the title is pedestrian. There's even stewed quince at the beginning. (For those of us not up on our religion trivia, Eve probably ate a quince at the tree of knowledge, thus screwing it up for all of mankind, etc.) I can think of at least two better bible puns right off the top of my head: Ahem, Steven and Gomorrah, When Herod Met Sally.
The book concerns Adam, an East German tailor who is caught schtupping one of his clients. His wife, Evelyn, decides to go on vacation without him. While essentially stalking his wife, Adam picks up the lovely hitchhiker Katja, another East German who is making a run for Hungary. Adam helps her out, taking her to the lake where Evelyn has run off, too.
Adam no sooner gets to the vacation house when he starts schtupping another woman, as tailors are apparently rock stars in communist countries and have their pick of hausfrau. It doesn't matter because Evelyn is now schtupping Michael, a West German who drives a Volkswagen Passat, a symbol of bourgeois Western decadence to the average East German. As a spoiled American who once drove a Passat, I can tell you they aren't decadent. Passat actually means “severe electrical problems” in German.
It's prudent to note that all of this is taking place in 1989. The whole communist thing is about to come crashing down, making way for corny Berlin Wall concerts. Having said that, such love-in-the-time-of-great-upheaval stories seem kind of, well, played out. And the metaphor that this couple's crumbling marriage relates to the collapse of communism? Blech.
There’s more interesting fodder that the author doesn't spend enough time on. Take Katja, the attractive woman trying to escape over the border—I'd rather read about that. Or the two cute border guards who give Michael the full-body cavity search at a crossing? Way rather read about that.
Getting back to the matter of translation. It takes the emotion—the soul of language—away. The English version of Adam and Evelyn fails to really capture the mood that would surely be present during the collapse of a totalitarian regime and the anticipation of all that freedom about to come rushing in. That, and married people in the same vacation house who are knowingly cheating on one another: It should be tense. Really tense. But that isn't coming across here.
Translation is the great sanitizer. I guess it's just the tragedy of the human condition. It's mind-numbingly tedious—and arguably impossible—to learn the hundreds of languages that exist out there.
Somehow it’s oddly comforting to know we have European counterparts suffering from the same translatory affliction. On a lighter note, the occasional German word that appears in Adam and Evelyn makes me want to go out and learn German. I don't know what Kinderschokolade is. All I know is I want to put it in my mouth.