Uwe Timm’s fourth novel begins with its nameless narrator’s first rejecting, then accepting, an offer to write a magazine article on, of all things, the potato. The project promises some relief from his own predicament, writer’s block—“Strictly speaking, this story begins with my not being able to find a beginning”—and a link to a beloved late uncle, himself an accomplished raconteur and amateur potato expert. From so humble a beginning grows Timm’s Shakespearean tale of comic deceptions and dreamlike encounters set in Germany after reunification, or more specifically in Berlin, where there are no checkpoints marking the boundary separating fact and fantasy, old habits and new ways.
Flying to Berlin to research his topic, the narrator, through a friend, meets someone who knew someone else, now dead, who had a potato archive. The narrator gets the archive (along with a bad haircut) but loses the index. Following ALICE IN WONDERLAND’s dream logic, MIDSUMMER NIGHT moves on to a Bulgarian arms dealer and a beautiful young woman who also knew the archivist, while writing her thesis on the potato in German literature. Having given up scholarship for far more lucrative phone sex, she agrees to help the narrator if he will call her at her business number, which he does. Of course, he quickly runs up a Scheherazade-size bill of 1001 marks, for what is he but the proverbial lost sheep, oft- fleeced (twice by barbers alone), and she a provocatively cross- dressed wolf. In a Berlin of beautiful transvestites, surly taxi drivers, Polish weddings, Bulgarian arms dealers, Tamil flower dealers, good Samaritans selling cardboard leather jackets that melt in the rain, and the composers of requiems for Rosa Luxemburg to be played on aspirators, stories proliferate, along with odd encounters and missed connections, old grudges and fresh starts. In such a world, Christo’s wrapping of the Kafkaesque Reichstag seems a fitting symbol of the new Germany, its possibilities no less than its uncertainties. As the narrator of this engagingly episodic and satiric yet decidedly optimistic novel learns, “You begin with the potato and end up somewhere quite different and on the way become someone quite different.”