Clemens Meyer: Im Stein (Bricks and Mortar)
I am not entirely sure what to make of this book. The title itself is a mystery. I have put the translation used by the English-language publishers – Bricks and Mortar (one of several translations it had had in English) – but German commentators have wondered what it means. However, my real problem is with the book itself. It is superbly written, giving a vivid and colourful portrait of an East German city (the name Eden City is used a few times, though that seems to be a nickname used by the ex-jockey, based on a German science fiction book, whose title translates as Eden City, Town of Forgetting). As Meyer was born in Halle an der Saale and grew up in Leipzig, these two have been candidates and he himself has suggested that it is a fictitious city, something of an amalgam of the two. But that is just the problem. That is really all it is – a 560 page portrait of a very ordinary East German city. Of course, that may be like saying that Ulysses is just a portrait of Dublin or, perhaps more pertinently, that Berlin Alexanderplatz is just a portrait of Berlin (this book has been compared to Döblin’s masterpiece). Like Ulysses, there is a sort of a plot and, as I mentioned, it is superbly written, giving a kaleidoscope of the city, particularly as seen from the perspective of the underbelly, which means, primarily, the prostitution industry, but also the bums, the johns, the druggies, the criminals.
The main focus is on the prostitution industry and an industry it is. It is apparently based on a true story that happened in Leipzig (see link below for more details). This one is run by Arnie Kraushaar (Kraushaar means curly hair), aka AK47. He has always been tough. When young he was a boxer but later took up kick-boxing. He trained every day and became very good. He has now set up his business as a proper organised business and he has training not just in kick-boxing but in business studies. He is not, he insists, a pimp but a businessman. He has a series of flats which the prostitutes use and a series of managers. Meyer claims that he himself has some experience of the industry but will say no more (link to interview in German). It is clear that he and Arnie Kraushaar know not just about prostitution but about business – profit and loss, market segments and so on. He is very keen, for example, on providing extra services for the clients (for example gangbang service – Meyer uses the English term) while also providing services to the prostitutes, such as laundry (to avoid a bad impression and germs).
It is also about the prostitutes themselves. We start off with what seems a banal account by one (unnamed) prostitute of her day. She watches out of the blinds of her window. She worries about the cold (it is January). She is bored waiting. She hears the phones of the other prostitutes ringing. She thinks about the daughter she may one day have. And, when her phone rings, she is somewhat concerned about having to go out to a hotel but consoles herself with the fact that she can charge more for this service (three hours of work at 150 euros an hour). The book also ends with a similar banal account by a prostitute. During the course of the book, we meet many of them. Meyer does not make moral judgements. It is a business, a job, no more, just like any other business and any other job. With exceptions. There are child prostitutes, to whose plight he is clearly sympathetic, and Arnie is clearly against forcing young women into prostitution, primarily because it is not good for business.
Above all, it is a book of the night and what happens at night, in the dark, in the shadows. Other characters abound. There is the former jockey, a (former) drunk and current drug user, looking for his daughter, who may well have been a prostitute. There is the Bielefelder (who does not come from Bielefeld), with his visionary (criminal) ideas and his fancy car. And there are the Hell’s Angels. It is a rich panorama of the ordinary, of the downtrodden and the downtreaders, of the people who inhabit the night and the shadows and the tunnels (yes, there are tunnels) of the city, of all cities. Of course, it is not only prostitution that increased after German reunification. Drugs of all types appeared and they add to the kaleidoscope of the book. Diamonds (Ecstasy), crystals (crystal meth) and so on are used by the ex-jockey and many others, though Arnie does not approve. Meyer’s colourful descriptions of the city and its dark-time denizens are superb, from prostitutes to druggies, from cops to criminals, all the people that Meyer seems to know well and most of us probably do not. But great novel, as some have claimed? I am not sure about that.
First published 2013 by Fischer
First English publication by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2016
Translated by Katy Derbyshire