The ten stories in The View from Stalin’s Head unfold in the post-Cold War Prague of the 1990s—a magnet not only for artists and writers but also for American tourists and college grad deadbeats, a city with a glorious yet sometimes shameful history, its citizens both resentful of and nostalgic for their Communist past. Against this backdrop, Aaron Hamburger conjures an arresting array of characters: a self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews; an artist, once branded as a criminal by the Communist regime, who hires a teenage boy to boss him around; a fiery would-be socialist trying to rouse the oppressed masses while feeling the tug of her comfortable Stateside upbringing. European and American, Jewish and gentile, straight and gay, the people in these stories are forced to confront themselves when the ethnic, religious, political, and sexual labels they used to rely on prove surprisingly less stable than they’d imagined.
As Christopher Isherwood did in his Berlin Stories, Aaron Hamburger offers a humane and subtly etched portrait of a time and place, of people wrestling with questions of love, faith, and identity. The View from Stalin’s Head is a remarkable debut, and the beginning of a remarkable career.
On May Day, 1955, two years after the death of Josef Stalin, a 14,000-ton granite memorial statue (the largest monument ever built in honor of the great leader) was unveiled on the edge of Letna Park, a bluff above the Vltava River and the heart of Prague’s Old Town.
Stalin stood thirty meters high in front of a line of workers, his right hand stuck inside the flap of his trench coat, Napoleon-style. The pose inspired such jokes as, “Why is Stalin reaching into his pocket? He’s getting out his wallet to pay for the statue.”
Otakar Svec, the monument’s sculptor, chose an obscure electrician from the Barrandov film studios as his model for the late party chief. The electrician, who earned the nickname of “Stalin” for the rest of his short life, became an alcoholic and died three years later. Svec himself committed suicide the day before the statue’s unveiling.
A week after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1962 speech denouncing Stalin as a mass murderer, the Czechoslovak Communist Party received orders from their Slavic big brethren to dismantle the monument. Too heavy to move, the statue had to be blasted apart with eight hundred kilograms of explosives and one thousand six hundred and fifty detonators, set off over the period of a month.
Legend has it that during the first series of explosions, Stalin’s head broke off cleanly at the neck and rolled down the bluff into the river, right to the bottom. Minnows darted into his ears and eyes and under his nostrils, looking for sustenance.
The remains of Stalin’s body were paraded in an open truck through the narrow streets of Old Town. Seven months later, the truck driver died in an accident on the highway to Poland.
The space on the bluff has remained empty ever since, except for a twenty-five foot statue of Michael Jackson, which stood there for a week in 1996.
Now you can understand why young Franta Smolenek, upon hearing from his best friend Javor that he’d actually seen the legendary head of Stalin in a friend’s apartment, reacted in a somewhat doubtful fashion. Then again, Javor was the kind of boy who could say he’d killed a man and make you believe it.
When Javor began at their secondary school three months before the incident in question, Franta had no close friends his own age. Instead he had his doting mother, who dressed her thirteen year old darling in short pants with pleats and peasant blouses with blue flowers embroidered on his breast. His nickname in school was “Daisy.”
Franta spent his free time helping his mother with the housework. He’d often tie her apron around his own waist and fix their meals while she rested on the sofa after a hard day. They kept no secrets from each other. Franta knew all the names of the students in her chemistry class and which ones she favored. She knew he hoped to be either a painter or a ballet dancer when he grew up. If Franta’s father walked in on them huddled together, he’d say with a smirk, “I do hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
Franta’s father was an ironic, distant man who affected the airs of a scholar. For example, if he wanted to look at one of the pornographic magazines he kept under the woodpile, he hid the porno behind his gold-stamped, leatherbound copy of the Iliad. Franta had browsed through these magazines once while his father was at work. He studied them like anthropological evidence of life and manners on another planet. Though he fully expected to have sex someday, he didn’t see the point in making a big fuss about it like most of the other boys his age. He classified sex with alcohol, video arcade games, pop music, and other modern annoyances.
When Javor appeared out of the blue at school that fall, no one liked him. He was thin and sandy-haired, with an insolently-twisted mouth. Every day he wore a pair of polished black boots with his pants tucked into them, like a Nazi.
“I’m no Nazi,” Javor said coolly when Aleksandar, the class thug, pushed him against the bus stop outside their school. “I’m a Communist.” Which struck them all as a good joke because the only Communists they knew were old people, always complaining about their increasingly worthless government pensions.
Javor never spoke in class except when the teachers’ backs were turned. Then he’d disguise his voice and call out: “Mickey Mouse!” “Michael Jordan!” “Hamburger!” He wore old-fashioned wool suits in dingy shades of grey or blue, and square brown sunglasses until the teachers insisted he remove them. He pickpocketed girls. He lit cigarettes in the hallways, and blew smoke rings right in the face of the headmistress.
“Why are you a Communist?” Franta asked him after school one time. He’d followed Javor onto a tram going in the opposite direction of his own home and studied the back of Javor’s head for several minutes without saying anything when Javor turned around unexpectedly. They bumped noses.
“I’m no Communist,” Javor said and glanced at Franta’s shoes. “It’s just something to say. Hey, where did you find your shoes?”
Franta was wearing brown Oxford-style dress shoes with laces. “My mother bought them for me in Austria,” he said.
“I’ve been looking for that same kind of shoes. All the old party bosses used to wear them. Do you want to come home with me?”
“I should call my mother first.”
“Why should you call your mother? I forbid you to call your mother.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon digging mud with loose branches in the woods behind Javor’s apartment building. Javor claimed there was a box of vodka buried somewhere by Soviet soldiers before the Velvet Revolution.
“Do you like vodka?” Javor asked.
Franta admitted he’d never tasted it.
“It’s delicious, though I prefer a good whiskey. How big is your penis?”
“I don’t know.”
“You mean you’ve never seen your penis before?”
“I’ve never measured it in centimeters.”
Javor handed him his stick. “Go behind that tree and hold this stick next to your penis, then come back and show me the mark.”
Franta did as he was told, adding a few centimeters.
“That small?” Javor asked.
“It’s bigger when it gets, you know, stiff.”
“Do you want to try some whiskey at my house?”
Though Franta was slightly afraid of his new companion, he didn’t want to show it. “Why not?” he squeaked.
Javor lived on the fifth floor of a monstrous grey panelak in a public housing complex formerly known as Red Bridge. The elevator was always out of order, so they had to take the stairs. His mother’s apartment was crowded with antique chairs and tables broken and piled on top of each other, a tray of tarnished silverware, a dirty breakfront with cracked windows, and rows of elaborately carved armoires, some with doors missing. From the bottom drawer of one of these armoires, Javor removed a bottle of whiskey, almost empty and wrapped in yellow newspaper. Franta downed half a capful. It tasted like perfume and scalded the roof of his mouth.
“The best stuff on earth!” Javor declared after downing a shot and beat his chest. He took off his boots and began to shine them with paint thinner, right on the living room floor, without even a newspaper underneath.
“Where’s your room?” Franta asked.
“I don’t have one. I share the place with my mother. I’m the man of the house.”
“What about your father?”
“What about him?”
Franta liked that, the easy recklessness of “What about him?”
An hour later, Franta’s father slapped his cheeks red for coming home late, then kissed him on the cheek and sent him to his room with no dinner. As soon as she heard her husband snoring in front of the TV, Franta’s mother brought her son a plate covered with a pot lid to keep it warm. She also brought some leftovers for herself and they sat on the bed together, eating and laughing.
“Aaron Hamburger’s first book, THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD, contains 10 attractive short stories set mostly in Prague… what’s striking about Hamburger’s singular choice of identities isn’t the identities themselves so much as their common assertiveness… they face the same problem: not just how to know who they are, but how to seem to know. Which is a different task entirely. Among this singular collection of people, the ones who stand out are the strange and unassimilable, those who are commanding presences or simply unique: the lovable Czech giant, Jirka; the unfathomably earnest Lubos… This is the stuff of a Czech fairy tale.”
— Daniel Soar, The New York Times Book Review
“This brilliant debut collection of stories, set in Prague in the 1990s, manages at once to express scorn, confusion, and affection for the careless disarray of Czech society… wryly observed.”
— Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe
“Perversely funny… reminiscent of David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day – laugh-out-loud funny.”
— L. A. Times
“The opening up of the Czech Republic to the West after the Iron Curtain came down is charted in American writer Aaron Hamburger’s winning collection of ten stories, THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD. Hamburger’s tone is downbeat but wry… Each story offers snapshot-precise visual impressions of the city while hinting at tensions stemming from its post-Communist status.
In one of the strongest stories, “The Ground You Are Standing On,”… Hamburger achieves a perfect balance of moral conundrums shared between accusers and accused… The tales featuring young Jewish gays on the make are raunchier and more comical… Hamburger’s Czechs are, if anything, relentlessly Judeophilic but in a way that can sound mighty anti-Semitic at times. This delicate ground is navigated deftly.”
— Michael Upchurch, The Seattle Times
“Poignant. [These stories] tickle and they poke. This happens thanks to the cadences of a candidly, cordially realistic narrative voice… enough at ease with itself to gaze outward and also to peer inward.”
— Molly McQuade, The Chicago Tribune
“Funny and sometimes touching stories… Colorful, provocative, and rewarding.”
— Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News
“In this debut collection, THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD, Hamburger coats his characters with layer after layer of estrangement, resulting in engrossing expat lit.”
–The Village Voice
“In language that’s both understated and visceral, Hamburger skillfully distills those moments when his characters experience crucial identity shifts, not just in wild, foreign encounters but more often while eating, bathing, and tending to the animal needs of love and safety that link us all.”
“A promising first volume.”
— Kirkus Reviews
“With subtlety and insight, Hamburger shows how people move in and out of labels and identities and how they clash and collide because of them, as well as how they cling to and claim each other because of them… Mostly what’s in Hamburger’s THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is the pulsing sensation of youth.”
— Chicago Free Press
“Hamburger’s sketches of oddball Prague natives are sharp and affectionate and his evocation of Prague in the 1990s is vivid and unexpected.”
— Publishers Weekly
“A collection that perfectly encapsulates the awkward beauty of expatriate living. Hamburger’s Eastern Europe channels the suffocating landscape of Milan Kundera, but, more remarkably, his Americans channel us, blemished and silly, stuck in jobs and relationships that make as little sense to them as the strange place in which they live.”
— GENEVIEVE ROTH, GQ
“In this fine debut, Hamburger has crafted 10 stories of Prague in the post-Cold War 1990s. His melancholy tales are peopled with well-developed characters—American, European, gay and straight, Jewish and gentile.”
— Genre Magazine
“Gritty and engrossing… the wham-bam West meets the reticent old world of Eastern Europe… fantastic.”
— Instinct Magazine
THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is a view of life and loss, desire and despair, coming of age, and running away. In short, this stirring debut is a view of everything that matters, accomplished by a brilliant young writer with tremendous gifts.
— Ben Marcus, author of Notable American Women and The Age of Wire and String
Set in Prague, these stories explore the lives of the American expatriates, tourists, and drifters who found their way to that city in the post-Cold War era. Hamburger’s characters are generally young, Jewish, and often gay and tend to be struggling with questions of identity and faith. In “A Man of the Country,” an American falls for a straight Czech youth, with all of the misunderstandings and false starts of their relationship interpretable both symbolically and literally. “Garage Sale” concerns a gay Canadian English teacher who finds himself slowly, and surprisingly becoming involved with a Czech woman despite his misgivings and self-doubt. “Exile” involves an American artist drawn to an unusual synagogue that caters to non-Jews and to the mysterious Evzha, who may or may not be a prophet. “The Ground You Are Standing On” probes the reactions of two middle-aged Jewish tourists who board with an elderly woman in a house that had been Jewish-owned before the war. A provocative and often striking first collection.
— Library Journal
“With a sharp eye for outlandish details, absurd turns of phrase, and quiet but monumental moments of realization, Aaron Hamburger lures you into the most intimate worlds of young Czech schoolboys and jaded ex-pats alike. This is a marvelous and honest collection of stories about people searching for identity in a country searching for the same.”
— Jessica Shattuck, author of The Hazards of Good Breeding
“Hamburger’s debut is thoughtful, poignant, and sharp, a welcome package of emotionally resonant yet enigmatic tales.”
— Lambda Book Review
“To be American, Jewish, Gay, teaching English in Prague: this is the situation limned by Aaron Hamburger in his marvelous collection THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD. Artfully crafted, funny, poignant, sharply observant of realities and anguishes, these stories introduce a voice as original and engaging as his subject matter. This is a succulent meal indeed!”
— Mary Gordon
“We’re definitely not in Paris anymore. THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is a triumphant collection of storing chronicling the loves, the losses, and the dreams of denizens of Prague. With charm and wit and force of life, Aaron Hamburger takes us deep inside the city walls. Poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, these stories are as good as they come.”
— Binnie Kirshenbaum, author of HESTER AMONG THE RUINS
“10 short tales that delicately explore the Prague experience with a sometimes sad, sometimes farcical, always artful touch…I impatiently await his next work.”
— The Metro Times
“THE VIEW FROM STALIN’S HEAD is just a wonderful collection. One of the loveliest surprises is that things actually happen—there are plots in here! Funny, satisfying and genuinely engrossing, Aaron Hamburger knows how to tell a great story. This book will be good to you.”
— Victor LaValle, author of THE ECSTATIC
“In ten short stories, Aaron Hamburger renders the stark emotional realities of expatriate living against Prague’s densely layered streets, squares, synagogues, and subway cars… The ensuing culture clashes are often alienating, confusing, even painful—but, like the most rewarding travel experiences, they’re always invigorating.”
— Out Traveler
“A sensitive and funny portrait of the city and its inhabitants. Hamburger’s talent for both writing and observation is obvious…with the portrait of Prague he has lovingly and believably created, and with this debut collection promises a strong career ahead.”
— Small Spiral Notebook
“Ten short stories that unfold in post-Cold War Prague of the 1990s, a magnet not only for artists and writers but also for American tourists and college grad deadbeat. The story about the self-appointed rabbi who runs a synagogue for non-Jews is worth the price of the book alone.”