On his last day in Prague, an unnamed narrator takes time to
look back: “Some mornings I woke up and could actually feel
my personality evaporate into the smog I breathed each day.”
For this character, adapting to a new culture means almost losing
track of himself in the process. “How had I become this
robot, this impersonation of a man, who breathed, ate, paid crowns,
all without passion?” It is a sense of alienation shared by
many other characters that populate “The View From
Stalin’s Head,” the compelling first book by Aaron
Hamburger.

Book Reviews

All of the stories in Hamburger’s collection revolve in
some way around life in post-Cold War Prague. Many of the
characters are American expatriates, eking out an existence
teaching English in a city where beer is cheap and tourism runs
rampant. For these Americans, many of them gay or Jewish, the sense
of foreignness is accentuated by conservatism and prejudice. The
Czechs in these stories have their own reasons to be nervous.
Unbalanced by the split of their country, an influx of foreigners
and a rickety economy, the citizens who work desperately to learn
English find themselves strangers in their own land.

Not surprisingly, the expatriate existence led by many of the
characters mirrors the experience of the author himself. A
University alum, Aaron Hamburger spent time in Prague teaching
English. His affinity for the Czech capital and its environs comes
through in the plain but vivid prose. The fourth story of the
collection, “This Ground You are Standing On,” gives an
unassuming depiction of Terezin, a former village turned
concentration camp not far from Prague. “The center of town
was surrounded by a ring of staunch brick walls with weeds running
through the cracks and a moat filled with brown, withered
flowers.” But while the consistency in description of setting
makes Prague a commanding physical presence in every narrative, it
is Hamburger’s exploration of Eastern European cultural mores
that is at the heart and soul of his Czech portrait.

In every one of Hamburger’s stories, sexual, religious and
political tensions provide the catalyst for dramatic action and
character change. In “This Ground You Are Standing On,”
an American Jewish woman chastises the elderly widow whose room she
is renting, believing that the woman might have aided the Nazis
during the war. In another story, “Exile,” a gay
American attends unorthodox religious services in an attempt to
reconcile his sexual preference with his Jewish faith. In focusing
on this often blurry line between public and private life,
Hamburger makes a point of tackling the religious and sexual
complexities of Czech society.

With a book so intent on examining the culture and history of a
single city, it would be possible to label “The View From
Stalin’s Head” as a political narrative and leave it at
that. It is true that these stories are a history lesson unto
themselves, an experience that can be occasionally disconcerting.
But Hamburger’s agenda is more emotional than political, and
his plots, though sometimes bizarre, are always heartfelt. In the
title story, an aging artist once persecuted by Communist rule pays
a teen to abuse and belittle him.

For the artist it is a way of reliving the past, when the heat
of persecution had given his life meaning. Influenced by
Christopher Isherwood’s “Goodbye to Berlin,”
Hamburger brilliantly intertwines bitterness and nostalgia,
revealing the fragility that accompanies social upheaval. For the
men and women in Hamburger’s stories, such fragility is the
source of unexpected intimacy. “All fairy tales,”
Hamburger wrote, “have in common not ‘once upon a
time’ but an unlikely pairing of characters who under normal
circumstances would never have met.” It is a credit to the
author’s vision that despite their differences, these
characters still have something in common: In Hamburger’s
eyes, they are all survivors.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

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