As Ingo Schulze’s “Adam and Evelyn” begins, it’s 1989 somewhere in East Germany. A carefree, feckless young couple set off for a vacation they’ve been planning for months. Adam is a 30ish guy who makes a good living as a master tailor. He’s an artist at his work, which consists of turning fairly ordinary women into striking beauties. He’s not conceited about his talent, but he recognizes it, and it brings him quiet satisfaction.
His girlfriend, Evelyn, has vaguer aspirations. She’s just along for the ride — one of life’s perennial passengers. They may be in love; it’s too soon to know, but they like each other. They’re headed for Hungary, which, the reader will remember, is headed for a fairly spectacular reconstruction.
They both attract friends — or admirers — in the way casual lovers do, testing each other. Evelyn has struck up a friendship with a guy named Michael, a slick sort whom Adam hates on sight; he seems to be after Evelyn, who protests, of course, that nothing could be further from the truth. And there’s a pretty girl named Katja, whom Evelyn distrusts, and maybe she’s right to do so. Before they left home, Evelyn caught Adam literally with his pants down, accepting thanks from an overly grateful customer. But heck, Adam and Evelyn aren’t married. They each want to get away with as much as they can without letting the other get away with anything much at all.
They’re loaded down with vacation paraphernalia: gas cans, visas, maps, passports and, weirdly, an enormous turtle. They’ve gone to considerable trouble to get the papers to cross into Hungary, but those documents don’t seem necessary. “They opened the border,” says Katja, who’s prevailed upon Adam for a ride when Evelyn’s back is turned. “A couple hundred people ran and ran and they were gone.” Katja has already risked her life trying to swim the Danube to get out, or in — it’s unclear which — but this is a romantic comedy (or at least it starts that way), so there’s nothing tragic about her attempt. In fact, she can’t make up her mind about which country is the better choice. The plain truth is that nobody knows which border is best to cross or where life will end up being sweeter. A whole generation of young adults seems hopelessly confused.
Meanwhile, Adam and Evelyn get into endless bickering sessions. Who is more unfaithful? More serious? More fun? More attractive? They begin to dance around the idea of being in love, mostly out of boredom. They stay at bed-and-breakfasts and with a stray aunt or uncle here and there. There seems to be enough money, and even when their papers run out, they stay on the road. They don’t really want to go home; they’re not sure where their real home is.
We know parts of this plot in our bones. Does Adam return to his satisfying career? When it comes to choosing paradise, does the couple decide on East or West Germany? Do they end up happy? How does the book of Genesis turn out?
There’s a marvelous scene about Evelyn learning to use a dishwasher in the place they end up living. Surely, this must be paradise — no more working by the sweat of our brow — or maybe it’s just another tiresome hassle, the start of their pointless yearning and striving. This charming, thoughtful story starts as a romantic comedy, as I said, and ends up a sermon. But what’s being preached? Schulze leaves that up to us.
See regularly reviews books for The Post.
ADAM AND EVELYN
By Ingo Schulze
Translated from the German by John E. Woods.
Knopf. 288 pp. $27.95