'Bricks and Mortar' Is a Thrilling Portrait of Neo-Liberal Germany's Seedy Underworld

© Worldpics/Shutterstock
© Worldpics/Shutterstock
Photo of Reece Choules
17 May 2017

Clemens Meyer’s newly translated novel is populated by characters who learned to abuse, or were used by, Germany’s neoliberal policies.

Cover courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions

A portrait of Germany at the end of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall has fallen; the city’s East and West are unified. Decades of Communism abruptly abandoned for the loving embrace of liberal capitalism. A mass migration of goods and people flow into a former GDR city where opposing forces vie for power and wealth, bringing with it lust and fear and violence. These are the foundational stones lay by the German writer Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar, his newest work to appear in English.

The novel opens with a woman contemplating the evening sky. It is winter, 2011, and business is slow: “We all complain in January,” she tells us. Gradually the woman reveals more of her “nocturnal services” remarking on the hygiene and habits of her customers. She does not want pity, however, for her this is only a short term thing. She has plans—everything is a means to an end.

This is the resolution for many of the characters that exist within this unnamed former East German city: the cops and politicians, the small-time gangsters, the alcoholic ex-jockey searching for his drug-addicted daughter, and the child prostitutes kept captive by human traffickers. Hearing their wants and desires close-up and from a distance, we are confronted head-on by a vision of reality that is dark, merciless, and hiding in plain sight; one we so often choose to ignore.

If there is a focal point to this reality, a chief protagonist among those lost in the wasteland, it is Arnold Kraushaar. It’s his narrative that weaves throughout Bricks and Mortar, a path that sees him evolve from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service provider to the city’s prostitutes. But as Kraushaar’s influence grows, so too does his list of rivals, like the gangs moving in from all over Europe, and the crime families trying to force through partnership deals and diminish his power.

Kraushaar’s rise to a teetering top is told as as much by him as it is seen through the distorted eyes of his inner circle. Chapters switch in point of view and between past and present. This allows Bricks and Mortar to read like like a series of connected short stories that bring together to make a wider, more expansive point. As one of Kraushaar’s associates notes: “Business has made us cold…cold and greedy.”

Kraushaar’s knack for aphorisms comes through Bricks and Mortar‘s strange carousel narrative like a stylized jolt of electricity. “Money is the drug,” is one Kraushaarism. “Everyman’s friend is everyman’s fool,” is another. His frequent references to the utopian fiction of Stanislaw Lem, as well as the socio-economic writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, seem to offer glimpses of a grander vision at work. But Kraushaar is a man who plays to both sides, reaping the benefits of the new system, while wrestling with a nostalgic affection for the German Democratic Republic. Its fall, in his words, represents “the end of the utopias.”

It’s not just Kraushaar that alludes to this sense of disillusionment either. Many of the other weary and detached souls in Bricks And Mortar not only share Kraushaar’s sentiments, but seem to suggest that the very ideals that once freed them from one form of oppression have only worked to deliver them into the arms of others—in this case the oppression of crime and prostitution.

This is perhaps most clearly addressed in various digressions on the German government’s 2002 Prostitution Act—a law aimed at removing the general prohibition and moral stigma attached to prostitution by legalizing sex work. For Kraushaar the law has definitely worked in his favor: he believes the PA has given him legitimate means to exploit the further exploit the system. Meyer is making social commentary here: the effects of these reforms are still debated within Germany, even if they have been credited with a reduction in violent attacks against those in the industry.

The author dressed as a police officer | © Peter Hartwig

In some ways these imbedded acknowledgements of political and societal change in Germany are reminiscent of Andrew Dominik’s 2012 film Killing Them Softly. In this black comedy spotlighting the 2008 financial crisis, we are presented with a harsh disenfranchised white male idea of the world, mirrored by corporate America scrambling to survive in the aftermath of global economic meltdown. Business must continue at any cost: the wrong people take the fall while image and prestige are valued over justice.

In Bricks and Mortar this approach is used to cajole the reader into considering the issues posed by legalized prostitution, while also shining a light on the often forgotten casualties of neoliberal capitalism. It would be wrong, however, to mistake Meyer as giving us a preachy lesson in history. If Bricks and Mortar offers a pessimistic view of East Germany post-unification, then it also manages to go beyond to give us a humanistic one as well. In one scene, a child prostitute offers another exploited girl a broken watch as a belated birthday gift. In another, an aging sex worker reflects on her rapidly failing state of health. Moments like these offer a breath of heart-breaking tenderness.

Meyer has been likened to Raymond Carver, but there is a noticeable undercurrent of cynicism here reminiscent of Michel Houellebecq. These comparisons though fail to fully articulate the impressionistic force of German novelist’s writing, as exemplified in this dazzling passage: “The violent days were long, but long ago as well, almost not true anymore, the years of calm, your head on the asphalt, the city’s quiet on a Sunday and the rain is red, the car is red, right next to you.”

The language is dizzying at times, frank and colloquial in others, but through Katy Derbyshire‘s glorious and award-winning translation, the reader is guided around this intoxicating, unflinching underworld without getting lost. Some of the content in Bricks and Mortar will be shocking to many, but this sombre drift through lonely nights and clandestine activities offers a fascinating and compelling take on post-Cold War Germany.

by Clemens Meyer
translated by Katie Derbyshire
Fitzcarraldo Editions | 672 pp | £14.99

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