The latest Ingo Schulze novel is an odd hybrid of sex comedy, road trip, and existential thriller. In Adam and Evelyn, the original sin occurs when an East German tailor named Adam sleeps with a female client. His girlfriend Evelyn catches him with his pants down, then flees to Hungary with a friend and her cousin. On impulse, Adam stalks her across Europe and tries to woo her back to paradise.
Set in the pivotal year of 1989, the domestic crisis of Adam and Evelyn unfolds against a political crisis prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. On his quest to reclaim Evelyn, Adam meets border guards, bureaucrats, and hitchhikers; these characters represent a world of fear and repression surely familiar to Schulze, born in the former German Democratic Republic and in his 20′s when the wall fell. Yet the question of whether to defect to the West seems to matter less to Adam, a dutiful and apolitical middle class guy, than his desire to resume domestic bliss. He wants to return to his version of Eden, but the confluence of his sins and the changing political landscape make this paradise obsolete.
Throughout, Schulze undercuts the stark Cold War setting with humor, from the characters’ casual bed-hopping to the comic tenacity with which Adam pursues his wife. His road companions are a pet turtle and a junky 1961 car named “Heinrich.” Two minor characters are named Michaela and Gabriela, after the archangels. And Evelyn’s new lover, who wants to whisk her to the West, is a researcher who sincerely believes that science can make humans immortal. The brisk pace also lightens the mood. With its episodic chapters, sparse style, and abundance of dialogue, the novel often reads like a stage play, which makes sense given Schulze’s background in theater.
Like any road trip, there are moments of tedium, particularly in the middle section, where the characters seem to wallow in their existential malaise and the previously rollicking plot loses steam. And if you’re not familiar with Hungarian politics circa 1989, you might start with the appendix so as not to flounder in the context that the characters (and perhaps European readers) take for granted.
At one point in the novel, Adam gets hooked on the Bible and even reads passages from Genesis aloud to Eve. This hardly sparks a conversion. Later, he questions “how a grown adult can actually believe in eternity, sin, hell, and the whole whoop-de-do.” To that, another character replies: “There’s something religious stuck inside every human being, you can’t make any headway against that.” But if the novel is ambivalent –or even opaque–on the subject of religion, the story testifies to the power of faith.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His recent reviews include Sex on the Moon and two books by Roberto Bolaño: Between Parentheses and The Third Reich. For more reading recommendations, see his Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011 and Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2011.