Clemens Meyer: Als wir träumten (While We Were Dreaming)
This was Meyer’s first novel though it is the second of his novels to be translated into English, his Im Stein (Bricks and Mortar) appearing in 2016, both translated by Katy Derbyshire and both published by Fitzcarraldo, though those are not the only similarities.
This book is set in Leipzig and, at the beginning of the book Leipzig is in the German Democratic Republic as the Berlin Wall has yet to fall. The book essentially follows the lives of a few boys/young men during the late 1980s/1990s. They come from a relatively poor area of Leipzig and generally their parents are struggling, if, indeed, they are still around. It is told in a series of episodes, not in chronological order.
Our narrator is Daniel Lenz (Dani in the (German version, Danny in the English one). Initially, during the GDR years, Danny seems to be a good Communist. He is a devoted member of the Pioneers, an East German youth organisation, and does well at school, He is seemingly well behaved and respected by his teachers. That is about to change.
He has a group of friends. They come and go but are primarily Daniel, Mark, Rico, Paul, Walter and Stefan aka Pitbull. The somewhat older Fred, with whom they also associate, is also involved but much less so. Fred and his brother Silvio set the pace: Their parents had given them up and they’d been in a secure facility for kids and teens with behavioural issues for years.
As mentioned the book is not told chronologically so we we will revert to their early, generally fairly well-behaved days after learning of their later transgressions. There is one exception to their early well-behaved days and that is Rico. He causes problems in class and Danny is told to try and help him get back into line and/or associate less with him. Despite Danny’s promises, neither happens. Danny will make several promises about improving his behaviour to his mother, girlfriend and social worker to name just three. He will not keep these promises, however well intentioned they may have been at the time.
Much of the book describes their various transgressions. They are vandals. They steal and stealing involves shoplifting, stealing money from parents and an elderly lady they are helping, and car-jacking. Thry even steal beer from the local brewery. Any opportunity that presents itself to steal, they take advantage of. Cars are stolen to help in their crimes but more for just joy-riding. They seem to relish conflict with the police and all of them will be arrested and most, including Danny, will spend time in a youth detention centre and/or jail. Danny’s mother, who by this time has divorced Danny’s fairly unpleasant alcoholic father, is horrified when the police bring him home one night in handcuffs.
Of course alcohol and, later drugs, are part of their lives . More than one of hem have serious drug problems and all take drugs at some time and, of course, all drink heavily, with the resultant consequences of drunkenness and drunken behaviour. In several cases, their parents have been very bad examples, both as regards drink and petty theft.
Another key factor is fighting. There are several fights in this book, from the relatively straightforward one-on-one fights to those where our heroes are massively outnumbered and get badly beaten. However, they certainly initiate several of them, particularly Rico, who is a boxer and quite a good one.
There are two other areas where young men are traditionally involved. Danny and his father are supporters of Chemie Leipzig and, of course, football often means violence between fans and we see it in this book. Indeed, Danny’s father goes to prison for it.
The other key issue is sex and though it certainly plays a role here, it is surprisingly limited. Danny and Rico in particular will have a lot of casual sex, including with prostitutes. However regular girlfriends are very limited. Danny has two that he is interested in. One goes to West Germany with her parents and they do not keep in touch while the other goes down the slippery slope like the boys. If the others have girlfriends, they are not mentioned and one of the boys even maintains that he is impotent. However, they frequently steal and peruse porn magazines so we can assume that masturbation is frequent.
And so to the title. Als wir träumten would normally be translated as When we dreamed. Translator Katy Derbyshire has gone for While We Were Dreaming. An alternative version might be When We Had Our Dreams. In any case, what is important is that when young the boys do have dreams as many young people, of course, do. Danny is given a Council of Ministers’ certificate for outstanding school performance, wins a prize for reciting a poem and is something of a teacher’s pet at school. He wants to be a reporter. Mark is keen on doing something in music. Rico has dreams of becoming a prize fighter and does well initially. As his name tells us Pitbull gets a pitbull while Paul dreams of the girl who works in the shop where he buys his mother’s lottery tickets.
More importantly, perhaps, the boys set up a techno club (illegally) in an abandoned factory. The police are bought off and, after a rocky start, it does well. However, a local gang has other ideas and, as Danny says, it was the drugs, the bastard drugs that messed everything up, that smashed up our dream and another dream is shot to hell. In short all their dreams go wrong. Part of this is because of the poor decisions they make, part because of circumstances and part because of life in the poor part of Leipzig is likely to be doomed from the start, however hard you try.
In all of this we get glimpses of vaguely decent behaviour. Every so often one or more of them, Danny in particular, will do something which makes you think that there is something worthwhile there, but it generally does not last for long, again because of poor decisions or poor circumstances.
During the course of the book the German Democratic Republic ceases to exist and the Germany we now know comes into existence. You would barely know it from this book . Near the beginning (chronologically) but near the end (in the book) the boys inadvertently get caught up in a demonstration against the GDR. They only just manage to escape from the police thorough they are not really sympathetic towards the aims of the demonstration. References to the fall of the Berlin Wall and die Wende (i.e. reunification) are scant. Danny’s girlfriend leaves for the West with her parents. Mark’s parents get a microwave, something unheard of in the GDR. The police are a bit less brutal, However, on the whole, not much changes.
So what went wrong? Yes, it all went wrong for all of them. Death, prison, rehab and quite simply going nowhere.
Speaking to the assembled children at the school, an East German police officer says there are some who never learn, and that’s why we have to… that’s why there have to be consequences. His words turn out to be very true. Many of their problems are caused by the boys themselves. They are not, of course, helped by the fact that they live in a very deprived area where gangs rule, the police are not interested in anything but brutally suppressing bad behaviour, theft, alcohol and drugs are the norm and few if any of the parents are role models for their children. The only way is down and, sadly, they eagerly head downwards.
In a quotation from a review mentioned in the introduction the writer compares Meyer to Salinger, Jean Genet and Dostoevsky. I am not sure that I accept that though I see what he means. Dostoevsky and Genet, in particular, focus very much on the dark side as does Meyer, Salinger less so. William Burroughs might be a better comparison.
What makes this book so interesting is that it is totally relentless. Most of the time, something bad is happening, is a about to happen or has just happened. This may be minor such as being told off by a teacher or something worse, such as a vicious fight. Even when there is a break, for example when Danny or one of the others does something vaguely decent, you know that in the next couple of pages it is all going to go bad again and it does.
It will not be to everyone’s taste but I think it is an important book in that it gives a portrait of Germany that most non-Germans will be unaware of and probably many Germans. Seventeen years after it was first published in German it is good to finally have it in English.
I would just mention that there is a film version of this book which I have seen and it is well worth viewing. It is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book, though it cuts out some episodes, reduces others and changes one or two things, particularly the chronology.
First published in 2006 by Fischer
First English publication in 2023 by Fitzcarraldo Editions
Translated by Katy Derbyshire