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Shades of Kafka from a `Gruppe 47' Writer

THE SELECTED STORIES OF SIEGFRIED LENZ. Edited and translated by Breon Mitchell, New York: New Directions, 225 pp., $19.95 ALONG with G"unter Grass and Heinrich B"oll, Siegfried Lenz is one of the leading figures of the first generation of postwar German writers associated with ``Gruppe 47,'' a loosely structured group founded in 1947 in reaction to the censorship being imposed by the occupying American military government. Uneasy with the values (or lack thereof) of the newly emerging West German republic and with the repressive socialism being practiced by the East, these writers shared neither a common vision of the past nor a collective program for the future. But they were obviously and indelibly shaped by their experience of Nazism and troubled by questions of individual and national guilt.

Lenz was born in 1926 in what was then the East Prussian town of Lyck (now in Poland). He served in the German navy toward the close of the war, and deserted to Denmark. After the war, he studied at Hamburg University, and since then has divided his time between Hamburg and the Danish island Als.

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Still not as well known in the United States as Grass or B"oll, Lenz is the author of a considerable and varied body of work spanning four decades: novels, short stories, plays, essays, and political journalism. His most famous novel, ``Deutschstunde'' (1968), translated into English in 1986 as ``The German Lesson,'' won acclaim in the US as well.

This volume of ``Selected Stories'' is the first collection of his short fiction to appear in English. The 26 stories, selected with the author's approval, represent approximately one-third of his total output written in the years from 1950 to 1984. They have been arranged in three categories: ``Tales of Our Time,'' ``Tales from the Village,'' and ``German Lessons.''

These category titles only begin to suggest the impressive range of Lenz's style and subject matter. The `` Tales from the Village'' have a folksy humor and canny simplicity reminiscent of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem, while some of the political parables in the other two sections have a flavor that is distinctly Kafka-esque. Indeed, one story, ``An Acceptable Level of Pain,'' about a general who insists on undergoing the interrogation process used by his secret police because he wants to ``prove'' that their techniques of torture do not exceed the aforesaid ``acceptable level,'' has unmistakable debts to Kafka's ``Penal Colony.''

Another story, ``The Punishment,'' involves the Kafka-esque theme of a man who demands to be put on trial for his war crimes, becomes his own harshest prosecutor, and is utterly distraught when, despite his best efforts to convict himself, he is acquitted. Lenz's parables, although serious in their intent, seem lighter and more comic than Kafka's in tone - especially if one forgets, as it's easy to do, the very real, if grim, element of comedy in Kafka.

Other ``tales'' take place in mythical foreign countries - and strange climes. Somewhere in the frozen north, a hapless hunter, ``The Laughingstock'' of his tribe, struggles to bag some game, only to have his hard-won bounty threatened by polar bears. Lenz also writes poignantly in the realistic mode, whether he is delineating the emotions of a woman whose husband is taking an important test in ``The Exam'' or exploring the heart and mind of a mother planning a cheerful celebration for the ``Sixth Birthday'' of her seriously ill child.

Although many of Lenz's stories deal with questions raised by the experience of Nazism and World War II, the question of Germany's division into East and West also occupies his mind. In ``The Waves of Lake Balaton,'' a couple from the West agree to meet with relatives from the East at a resort hotel in Hungary. They are determined to avoid arguments about politics. But certain essential differences in their views have a way of coming out.

Lenz's magisterial command of so many modes is matched by his understanding of what each has to contribute. In his charming, but by no means insubstantial, story ``Fantasy,'' three writers set themselves the task of inventing a story about a man and woman seated across the way at a tavern.

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One tells a straightforwardly ``realistic'' story about a married woman and her lover. The second invents a mystery about a brother and sister in search of their father and - because he dislikes neat resolutions - leaves the ending up in the air. The third produces a fantasy about a magic feather with the power to dissolve solid objects. When the woman in the tavern actually burns a feather she's been carrying, her action appears to confirm the truth of the most fantastic story. Yet when the writers finally question the couple and get the ``real'' story, it proves nothing like any of their inventions. Yet the fact remains that these three little fictions have provided us with deeper insights about reality than the ``real'' story ever might have done.

Breon Mitchell's translation captures the amazing versatility, flexibility, and elegance of Lenz's style. For some reason, he does not provide publication dates of individual stories, which might have been of interest to readers in search of a clearer perspective on Lenz's career. One can only speculate that the motive was to avoid anything that might detract from the overall effect of freshness and seamlessness that this well-chosen collection leaves in its wake.

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