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Moscow on the Rhine

St. Petersburg has a lot of history with Germany. In 1914, with Russia soon to suffer defeat in World War I, the Russian capital was renamed Petrograd because St. Petersburg sounded too German. Ten years later, when the father of the Soviet Union died, it became Leningrad in his honor, a name that lives on mainly in connection with the Nazi siege in which perhaps a third of the city's inhabitants perished. In 1991, no longer so concerned about the Germans (except to the extent they could provide hard currency), Leningrad became St. Petersburg again.

Ingo Schulze, a German, arrived in the city of Anna Karenina and Raskolnikov two years later and spent six months there as a journalist. The curious fictional result is 33 Moments of Happiness: St. Petersburg Stories, an audacious if uneven debut collection of interlocking short stories that attempts to capture the city's soul using the tools of its long-lost masters. The jacket copy tells us that the prose is "an homage to the great Russian masters whom Schulze is honoring - from Gogol to Pasternak, from Chekhov to Nabokov." Most of these stories are in fact uncannily reminiscent of sketches written by some 19th-century Russian you can never quite identify, and the translator, John E. Woods, has miraculously carried this feeling from German into English without making himself or the author sound too much like Constance Garnett, the translator whose labored renderings until recently were the first contact most readers of English had with all these mad Russians.

Schulze signals his intentions right off the bat with his opening conceit, an introduction in the form of a cover letter accompanying a sheaf of stories left behind, after a one-night stand, by an elusive German named Hofmann. The supposed writer of this letter is sending them to Schulze, who is to be merely their means into print (and who is presumably the author of the laconic endnotes pointing out some literary allusions in the work).

Schulze, or should I say Hofmann, is nothing if not ambitious. At their best, these stories are the work of a deeply imaginative writer who manages to infuse a torpid genre with some modern magic. People learn the outcome of some long-ago obsession by letter, except it arrives by fax, and instead of the czar's police or the state terror of communism, there are mysterious hoods so devilish that what must be the hottest banya (public bath) in St. Petersburg leaves them cold. A Western businessman is besieged by struggling vendors who write their names all over his body, and a disdainful uncle is wooed by the sweetness and crunch of his nephew's hardened feces.

Schulze also makes it possible for comfortable bourgeois Westerners to feel just how hard these people's lives are, whether he takes us to see a shell-shocked former Communist who can't believe his whole life and belief system have come to naught, or a flu-ridden St. Petersburg office worker struggling through an average day that heaps, on top of her loneliness and fatigue, all the lines, crowding, freezing and other special indignities of life in Mother Russia.

Hewing to his Russian literary forebears, Schulze's narrators are often cranks, and signature images screaming St. Petersburg verge on the banal even as they seem wholly authentic. A stairwell "smelled of potato peels," we are told at one point, and at another an elderly Communist named Leonid (with bushy eyebrows, yet) gets hold of some whiskey: "He did not hesitate to grab the bottle by the neck with one hand and press it like a stamp against the palm of the other."

Schulze is such a clever mime. In commencing the tale of one Alexander Kondratenko, to be known in much of the story as A., the author gives us the following:

"By way of preface I must note that all I knew about Alexander Kondratenko was that he was fluent in German, English and French, worked at the Institute for Oceanographic Research in Kaliningrad and had been divorced three times, the last time against his wishes by a former Miss Kaliningrad, who was the mother of his youngest son but who is now married to a German from Kazakhstan and living in Hamburg. Alexander celebrated his birthday, November 8, in Petersburg, where he had studied biology with his friend Dr. Kolya Sokolov. (It would be equally rewarding to write about Kolya Sokolov! He works at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in P. and on his expeditions to Siberia has discovered more than forty (!) previously unknown species of butterfly. He, too, speaks fluent German. He looked after me during my week's stay in P.)"

Unfortunately, Schulze's 33 Moments of Happiness aren't all pleasurable, and some seem much longer than brief. At their worst, they are not-very-interesting literary indulgences that live mainly on the surface of things and seem oddly heavy-handed, as if their author has learned too well how to imitate his Russian idols even at their worst (it's not even easy sometimes to keep things straight by sorting out the diminutives by which Russians call one another). Some of the stereotypical characters are cartoonish enough to be more at home in Woody Allen's Love and Death than in Russia (or even Russian literature), and this feeling is enhanced by some of Schulze's most ill-considered riffs on the iconography of post-Communist St. Petersburg. (Ingo, enough already with the vodka and borscht, cash and guns, hookers and hoods!)

At times Schulze seems to be striving for the literary equivalent of the trashy-violent tattoos favored by Russian prison inmates, and in fact many of these stories sound as if they would make better graphic novels - serious comic books, in other words, of the Art Spiegelman and Ben Katchor kind - than works of prose. It's also surprising how boring magical realism can be, no matter how far from the equator one encounters it.

All in all, though, the good moments outweigh the bad ones in this idiosyncratic collection, and for readers not overly attached to realism in their fiction and willing to indulge a writer his excesses, Ingo Schulze's St. Petersburg Stories offers plenty of happiness.

Daniel Akst is the author of St. Burl's Obituary, a novel.