Our heads are still safely attached to our necks, so this might be a good moment to leave Istanbul behind and set off for our next destination. Today, our Man Booker International Prize travels take us to Germany, where on the eastern side of what used to be the border, there’s a power struggle brewing, a conflict spanning several decades. This is very much a story about business, and while the market is new, the profession is not. It’s time to hit the streets of the big city in search of red lights, beautiful women and, of course, stone(s)…
Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer
– Fitzcarraldo Edition, translated by Katy Derbyshire
What’s it all about?
We begin with a woman in a small apartment. As she looks out of the window and occasionally glances at the television, we’re treated to a monologue about her work, the daily grind and the misconceptions:
Ich habe noch nie jemanden getroffen, der Aids hat. Was die Leute manchmal für Unsinn erzählen deswegen. Wir gehen ja regelmäßig zum Gesundheitsamt. Auch wenn wir’s nicht mehr müssen, vom Gesetz her, das war ja früher anders. Aber die Leute denken und erzählen ja überhaupt jede Menge Unsinn, was das betrifft und was uns betrifft.
p.7 (Fischer, 2014)
I’ve never met anyone with Aids. The rubbish people talk about that at times. We’re always going for check ups, yeah. Even if we don’t really have to, legally, that was different in the past. But people think and talk a load of rubbish about that, yeah, and about us.
*** (my translation)
That’s right – she’s a sex worker, and this is just an introduction to the profession. We find ourselves in the east of Germany, the old GDR, and Clemens Meyer’s novel is our extensive guide to the ‘milieu’ or red-light district, even if not everyone appreciates these labels. Over the next six-hundred pages or so, we’ll be meeting many more people and learning a lot about what goes on when the sun goes down (even if many of the women prefer to work more civilised hours).
In truth, though, while there are introductions to several of the sex workers over the course of the book, Bricks and Mortar is a work that concentrates far more on men. That includes the the customers (or ‘guests’), of course, but our real focus is on those behind the scenes, the businessmen running the show. Meyer’s novel is quasi-political, a description of the development of an industry over two decades and the struggles for power that happen in the background, a conflict that ‘ordinary’ citizens know little about.
The novel attempts to provide an overview of the sex industry in a large unnamed East German city (Leipzig?), cramming as many views as possible into its lengthy text. Some parts are ‘historical’, with stories of the first ‘pioneers’ of the sex wave moving eastwards and the eastern European workers coming from the opposite direction, as well as the inevitable moves into the market by the groups controlling the trade in other large German cities. However, there are personal stories, too: the frequent flyer, Ecki, with his internet show providing recommendations; or perhaps Suzanne and Birgit, two very different older women who develop a surprising friendship after a hard day at work.
The story is carried in part by a handful of reappearing main characters. There’s Hans Pieszek, a hard-bitten club owner with a side business in diamonds and a penchant for collecting guns (which can come in handy at times). Another prominent figure is der Graf (The Count), AKA ‘The Bielefelder’, an elegant (supposed) blue blood from the West with a finger in every pie. However, the main character, if there is one, is Arnold Kraushaar, or AK, the king of the apartment sex workers. AK has a monopoly on hiring out apartments in his city, taking small daily payments from the women in return for organising administration, advertising and protection. It’s a system that seems to work well enough for all concerned (including the women), and the three men have managed to create an environment of cooperation and stability. However, as with any successful business, there are competitors out there wanting to take over the market, and despite their claims, these newcomers are no angels…
It all sounds straight-forward enough, but I can assure you that this is definitely not the case. Bricks and Mortar consists of twenty-two sections of varying length, and in many ways, it’s less a novel than a series of linked short stories. The pieces are often self-contained, short episodes involving characters we’ve met (or may meet again in the future – or the past…). For example, we see AK in Japan, recovering after being attacked on the streets of his hometown, his blurred impressions heightened by both his fatigue and the unfamiliar surroundings. Another interesting outing shows the Bielefelder on a reconnaissance mission to the Polish border in the hope of expanding his business (a trip that goes horribly wrong). Eventually, most readers will recognise a style running through these stories, with the initial confusion gradually coming together before a final twist.
Many sections are told in the first person, and part of the charm, and frustration, of the novel lies in the way the reader is occasionally unsure as to who the narrator actually is. Meyer delights in keeping the reader (ironically enough) in the dark, and it’s not just the identity question that confuses us. Time switches and shifts of speaker between, even in the middle of, sentences abound, and the story leaps around in time from the early nineties to the present day. Even the main action in the novel can be frustratingly opaque at times. We know vaguely what’s going on, but as it all takes place in the background, we’re reduced to pouncing on hints as to who’s on the attack or fighting a rearguard action. More confusingly, with Meyer rarely wiling to spell things out, we’re not always sure if the main characters are dead or alive…
If I’m honest, prior to its longlisting this is a book I was, if not actively avoiding, then quietly ignoring, and there are some aspects of Bricks and Mortar that are less than perfect. Obviously, the sex may be enough to put some readers off, and while it’s not overly vulgar for the most part, there are a few sections that some readers may find offensive. It’s also a very masculine novel: the only real recurring characters are men, with the women mostly confined to a chapter each. Most of them seem happy, but there are signs elsewhere that the business isn’t quite as wonderful as it’s described:
Manchmal schlafen wir hier, manchmal bringt er uns woanders hin. Wenn wir wegrennen, findet er uns. Ich bin nicht so schnell. (p.332)
Sometimes we sleep here, sometime he takes us somewhere else. If we run away, he finds us. I can’t run that fast. ***
This is one chapter where we see the trade in a different light, and even if AK and Hans stress the harmony in their community, and the difference in their work, it’s hard to be totally convinced by their arguments.
Another issue to consider is whether the book actually develops enough as a novel. For me, the major conflict, the theme of the novel (the inevitable takeover of the business), simply isn’t highlighted enough, with the major events mostly happening elsewhere (with a couple of brutal exceptions). Personally, I would have liked to see a little more of this, and while there are a few interesting meetings, usually involving Hans, they only serve to whet the appetite for more. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who would have liked some of the more nebulous events to have coalesced a little.
Nevertheless, Bricks and Mortar is a work of great ambition, and while there are flaws, what daring work is completely error-free? It’s a wonderful novel, absorbing and intriguing, which always manages to describe the present while foreshadowing a darker future. It’s also linguistically complex, with a mix of registers and dialects (from both east and west), and its playful style uses an abundance of cultural references that would fly over most Anglophone heads (Schimanski, Wir fahr’n nach Berlin!, Verdammt, ich lieb’ dich…). I haven’t actually seen the English translation, but I’m tempted to at least skim through a couple of sections as I can imagine that translating this would have been an absolute nightmare.
This difficulty would no doubt have started with the title. The English choice, Bricks and Mortar, stresses the importance of real estate to the industry (e.g. AK’s countless apartments, the Bielefelder’s imposing establishment, the franchises they try to set up elsewhere), and Katy Derbyshire’s explanation, or justification, of her choice sheds more light on this. However, the original title, Im Stein (‘In Stone’ or ‘In the Stone’) has more nuances. The setting for the novel is a city built on stone, made to last, unlike the businesses passing through, and there are other stones too, of course – just as hard and valuable, but far nicer to look at.
As mentioned above, Bricks and Mortar is very much a book of men with its pimps, protectors, guests, and policemen, but once the conflicts have been resolved, it ends as it starts, with a woman. She’s not under any pressure, she’s simply doing her job, daydreaming and waiting until it’s time to go home:
…und so ein hübsches Mädchen wie du… Ach, nee. Hör auf, bitte. Fang jetzt bloß nicht an, dass ich das nicht nötig hätte. Ich mach’s nämlich, weil ich will, verstehst du? (p.136)
…and you’re such a pretty girl, too… Aw, no. Just give it a rest. Don’t start with all that you-can-do-better rubbish. You know, I do it because I want to, understand? ***
Will you like this book? It may well depend on whether you can accept that this is often the truth…
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
I certainly think so. As noted above, it’s far from perfect, but the few flaws are more than compensated for by its range, and as one of the more ambitious works on the longlist, it deserves to go further. I don’t think it’s a potential winner, but it’d be great for Meyer and Derbyshire (and Fitzcarraldo, too, for that matter) to have a few more weeks in the spotlight.
Will it make the shortlist?
Definitely a possibility, but I have my doubts. Ironically, it may suffer from comparisons with its stablemate, Mathias Énard’s Compass. I know that *technically* these decisions are made purely on what the best six books are (insert cynical comment here), yet it’s hard to imagine that two books from the same publisher, both extremely long and experimental, will occupy one-third of the shortlist.
Go on, prove me wrong – I dare you 😉
Once all accounts have been settled, it’s time to move on for yet more entertainment. Our second visit to Israel this year will see us enjoying a night out in the presence of a rather unusual man, an evening that promises to be, well, interesting. Have you heard the one about the comedian who had a nervous breakdown on stage? No? Well, take a seat – this might take a while…