Mr. Potato Head

Write about the potato, the German magazine editor told the narrator of "Midsummer Night." Among his suggestions: "The Peru-Prussia connection. Potatoes and the German mentality. And of course personal potato preferences. Recipes. Fried potato affairs."

The imagination of editors is not always lusher than other people's, and it gets worn by the frequent calls made upon it. The result can be to dispatch writers where they have already been.

"Midsummer Night's" fictional narrator had a previous success writing about a different, unnamed food item. In this and much else, he resembles his creator. Uwe Timm's novel, "The Invention of Curried Sausage," used the traditional Berlin snack as metaphor in an imaginatively pointed exploration of the Berliner character in wartime. Thereafter, no doubt, he was inundated by all manner of food proposals.

"Midsummer Night," though less focused and more self-indulgent, makes suggestive use of the potato to explore what is still a principal German literary theme: shaky identity. As the narrator goes from odd to odder encounter in his potato chase, he stirs up an identity cloud. Reunification, which was meant to heal the riven German character and someday perhaps will, has in the short term inflamed the split.

So, for example, when Timm's writer goes from Munich to what was East Berlin in search of an archive compiled by a dead potato expert, he records dilapidation and time lag. Cheap plastic toys are sold on the street by refugee Asians. Locally produced bicycles, after decades of socialist black, sport garish colors--at the same time that elegant black has become fashionable in Munich.

"Where are you from, then, over there?" demands an unemployed barber, and when the writer tells him that "over there" no longer applies, the barber challenges him. Examine, he demands, the flimsy plastic pipes that run through his bathroom.

" 'A genuine East German john . . . just listen.' In the distance I could hear gurgling. 'That's the sausages tumbling through my room.' "

The anomalies and unease of East and West gurgle through the writer's half-comic, half-mystical quest. Rogler, the dead expert, was a visionary. Besides his potato archive, he was working on a catalog to pinpoint the elusive quality of each of dozens of varieties. Seeing in their particularity a stubborn national expressiveness, he tried to organize an official exhibit to make the point. The East German authorities, having standardized their potatoes into an insipid mushiness, fired him.

Timm's irony putters along, the only true German unifier. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a West German agricultural company wanted to use Rogler's work to glamorize their product; unfortunately, this consists mainly of instant mashed potatoes. Rogler, a man of principle, remained as unemployed as ever.

As he traces the archive, the narrator comes across other East German specialists displaced by the sudden advent of the market economy. Rosenow, an academic expert on the history of Berlin land planning, is now a real estate speculator. Dr. Spranger, an authority on gypsy culture, counterfeits Russian Constructivist paintings. Tina Angerbach, who was writing a dissertation on potatoes in literature, runs a phone-sex service.

These and other extravagant characters figure in a succession of scenes as detached and peculiar as the chess squares in "Alice Through the Looking Glass." One or two have the acrid humanity that Timm celebrated in the Berliners of "Curried Sausage."

A motherly shopkeeper prepares the narrator an excellent breakfast and offers to pad the bill for his expense account; reasonably, she pads a little for herself. The old barber, sourly proud of the ugly haircuts he used to give the detested Communist Presidium, leaves three unsightly stripes in the cheap haircut he gives the narrator. The "routine sabotage" practiced by East German workers against the authorities is now directed against the new authorities, e.g., the prosperous West Germans.

Others drift through: eccentrics and con men. There is a professional writer of funerary prose who writes eulogies for families that do not want to use a clergyman. An Italian pulls up in a fancy car and, pleading a need for gas money to get back to Milan, offers designer leather jackets for a pittance. The narrator buys one; a rain shower quickly dissolves the cardboard beneath the imitation leather.

Other episodes are more bizarre in their uneasy connections and disconnections and dreamlike asides. Searching for a woman whose photograph appears in the potato archive, the narrator traces it to Anna Bucher, an artist who may have been Rogler's lover. He visits her house, finds her gone and, instead, encounters her wealthy husband along with a permanent house guest (one of the odd asides): a dark-skinned Tuareg princeling named Moussa.

Bucher describes Moussa's role as exotic trophy for the rich, decadent intellectual milieu that Timm is satirizing. At parties, the Tuareg "just sat gazing in amazement. And everybody wanted to be gazed at in amazement, or at least that he should be amazed by their lawn mowers, their yachts, their billiard tables."

The episode has both satiric and narrative charm, but its connection with the narrator's quest is fairly loose. Even looser is his involvement with Tina, the dispenser of phone sex. Timm creates a piquant erotic tension between the two of them only to knot it up in a series of sexual kinks and mystifications. As a result, the quest itself--for national renewal through the potato (tenuous but it just might jokily work)--loses its grip.

Frequently, the initial suggestiveness of "Midsummer's" picaresque episodes dissipates into a fairly flat and arbitrary development. What is not arbitrary, on the other hand, is the dreamlike quality that overlies them.

In Timm's novel, as in other German fiction, such as that of Gunter Grass, and in the work of filmmakers--Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Rainer Fassbinder--reality is enveloped in an unsettling nimbus. Virgil wrote of "the tears that are in things"; in the work of these Germans it is more nearly "the doubt that is in things"--a distrust of what is sensuous, material and rooted; and of the ground beneath.

It is a trait that threads back through at least two centuries of German culture and literature. If anything, it has been magnified by Nazism, the wars and the wary recovery that followed; and once again--perhaps briefly--by the jarring questions of meaning and identity that reunification has raised.

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