In addition to reading positive notices of Hamburger’s collection of stories set in late-1990s Prague (mostly involving American expatriates or tourists interacting with the natives), and being curious about how post-communist Prague strikes younger (than me) Americans, I was intrigued by the title The View from Stalin’s Head. The title story is the third in the volume, but unsure how independent of each other the stories were, I read the ten of them in order. (I don’t think anything was gained thereby, though a character in the last story (“Exile”) has some background from an earlier one (the second, “Jerusalem,” which is not set in the city of Jerusalem).)
There are two gargantuan-sized Stalin heads in “The View from Stalin’s Head,” so I didn’t feel cheated by the title. It would be unfair to potential readers to explain how the head(s) are invoked/involved in the stories. I was not disappointed by the teaser title, nor, indeed, by any of the stories. This is not to say that I liked them all. I rather disliked “Control,” though the characterization in it of a transit policeman is convincingly done.
I’m not completely convinced by the Czech giant in the first story, “A Man of the Country,” but the voice and the happenings in it are entertaining and fairly poignant. The first story features a male Jewish-American expat somewhat perplexed by a Czech man. The second features a female Jewish-American expat at least as puzzled by a Judaeophile Czech man.
“The View from Stalin’s Head” has an all-Czech cast (Stalin’s head not being part of the dictator who was dead before either one was made). “The Ground You Are Standing On” does not involve any young people (well, there is a youngish taxi tout). It involves a pair of Jewish American tourists who rent a room in an elderly Czech widow’s house. The confrontation is elegantly developed and brilliantly conceived. There are no villains and a lot of self-righteousness on display.
(Hamburger in 2019; he was already bald in 1994 btw)
“Sympathetic Conversationalist” has an ensemble of Czech students of (you guessed it) a Jewish-American expat in Prague “You Say You Want a Revolution” has a self-righteous Jewish-American woman who identifies with resistance of Coca-Cola colonialism. She connects with a group opposed to globalization, but rather than being socialist, it is royalist (wanting to restore the Hapsburg Empire). This is the story with the broadest humor and the only one that derides any of the characters (though those in the other stories do not lack for foibles). “Garage Sale” charts an offbeat relationship between a young Czech woman, Katka, and a Jewish-Canadian expat teacher of English who changes his stripes (or thinks he has).
I’ve already mentioned not liking what happens in “Control,” though respecting its artistry. It is the second story in the collection with no North American expat characters.
The most romantic story in the collection is the one set in Israel (though two of the characters are Americans working in Prague who go to visit the relatives in Israel of one of them). I’m not sure that I believe it, but I enjoy the characters and the departures from their expectations. Departures from expectations are rife throughout the volume, especially in the inter-ethnic relationships. “Law of Return” is more like the movie “Cabaret” than the Christopher Isherwood novella “Sally Bowles” that was its original source. “The Ground You Are Standing On” is the closest to some of Isherwood’s other Berlin Stories in which a character named Christopher Isherwood lived in a Weimar Berlin boarding house and observed bittersweetly comic relationships, including his own, with Berliners, as he made some money giving English lessons.
The final story, “Exile,” brings back the Judaeophile Czech, Lubos, a synagogue with a closeted lesbian rabbi, a kitsched-over concentration camp. It has rich detail and characterization, but seems more a sketch for a multi-character novel than a story that stands on its own.
Insofar as I can tell from the advance descriptions of Hamburger’s forthcoming (in October) first novel, Faith for Beginners, will be closest to “Law of Return,” involving a young midwestern Jewish-American in Israel. I have no idea whether it has the same characters or expands on that story.
Hamburger is a very good story-teller. Most of his stories even have endings, although I tended to launch right into the next story as soon as I finished one. At the end, I felt that I knew more than when I started about postcommunist Prague and about some of the Americans who have gone there for the X-generation’s European seasoning (Paris, London, and Rome having become too expensive, along with Manhattan and San Francisco for would-be writers and other kinds of artists to hang out while finding themselves and amassing Experience.
(On Hamburger, ca. 2019, and his second novel, Nirvana Is Here, see here.)
©2005, 2019 Stephen O. Murray