So, I gave Clemens Meyer another go after the last disaster, seeing as I ordered two of his books at once. This is a collection of short stories- nine in total, with an additional three short ‘introductory’ stories to each section of the book. I can’t give this book a rating overall because it wouldn’t feel fair seeing as its composed of such different narratives, but there are some overarching themes and imagery, such as loneliness, train stations (weirdly enough), chance encounters and old friends. I finished the book, but by the end it was more out of a sense of duty, and to practice my German, than any real commitment or enthusiasm. I would say some of them are definitely worth reading and do draw you in, at least initially, but it wasn’t worth twelve euros for just over 250 pages. Postage from Germany costs a bomb. It causes the repeat problem of having to spend too much money on ordering books online when you don’t even know if you’ll like them. I’ll now do a brief run-down of all the stories with star ratings below:
Glasscherben im Objekt 95 (Glass Splinters in Object 95)
This was one of my favourites from the book because the imagery is quite beautiful and it does touch on themes of xenophobia in the former GDR only a few years after reunification, when the new Bundesländer experienced their first wave of immigration from Russia and Turkey. The protagonist is a security guard who falls in love with a mysterious girl from the Ausländerwohnheim (block of flats for new arrivals) he patrols at night. She always wears a coat far too big for her. They speak to each other through the fence in pidgin German and Russian, and I like the slightly supernatural side to the story where the protagonist is convinced a dead soldier still haunts the former Red Army barracks adjacent to the flats, leaving Russian cigarette butts in the morning. The most frustrating part of the story is that it barely progresses at all. We learn nothing about the girl, not even her name or how old she is, or her motivations or personality. She’s merely an object of desire, which ruffled my feminist feathers. The story also mentions an attack on the Ausländerwohnheim by right-wing extremists, but this plays out in the background, which seems weird for a security guard supposedly protecting the site. He knows its occurring, but leaves the police to secure the scene. I found this baffling and unvbelievable.
Späte Ankunft (Late Arrival)
I think this was my favourite story from the book, which kind of set me up for disappointment with the other stories, really. It’s about an older woman working for the Deutsche Bahn cleaning trains, often late into the evening. At the seedy bar at the train station, she meets a hairdresser who also works at the station, but in its hair salon of course. Unfortunately, this was Meyer’s only story of the nine with a clearly discernible female protagonist. I do wonder why male authors seemingly find it so goshdarn difficult to write from a female perspective. The two older women strike up an unlikely friendship, and they are clearly both lonely in their separate ways. The story is full of a quiet sense of dissatisfaction with underachievement and the protagonist’s empty life (she often drinks alone after work), and she goes to find her newfound friend after she falls sick and doesn’t show up at the hair salon for a week. It’s quite touching, really.
Die Letzte Fahrt der Strandbahn
The imagery in this story was good – a windswept seaside setting, presumably somewhere on the Ostsee, the former GDR’s northern coastline. The protagonist, a fairly mysterious man who seems to be in the middle of a marital estrangement or a divorce, and is clearly running from something, spends a few weeks ‘holiday’ in a seaside town, and meets a lonely old man on a bench near the lighthouse. The old man goes into his youth as a tram driver during the Second World War, and his lost love. I didn’t particularly like this story because it limped along without much of a plot, and relied far too heavily on vague dreamscapes. Dreams are often important to a narrative and exploration of a protagonist’s subconscious, but a story which is 80% repetitive dreams about the same thing (they’re all on a tram) gets a bit wearing. I couldn’t see the point.
Der Spalt (the Gap)
I didn’t particularly like this one. It was strange, and not in a good way. The protagonist’s flat gets burgled, and the protagonist does not act in any logically discernible way. He doesn’t call the police, he doesn’t claim on insurance, he doesn’t stay at a friend’s or relative’s until the lock is repaired. Okay, he seems lonely too, but why wouldn’t you call the police? This guy seems rather square and completely non-criminal, so there was no reason not to. He ends up wandering aimlessly around the city until being chased for no discernible reason and ending up in a strange old woman’s flat, where he sort of moves in and pretends to be her long-lost grandson. There’s a particularly disturbing scene involving a meat tenderiser and a schnitzel. It’s all very oedipal. The story ends with him putting on her grandson’s military uniform. No, I didn’t see the point in this one at all.
Die Stillen Trabanten (the Silent Trabants)
The Trabant was the most popular car in the former GDR, mainly because it was one of the only available cars. However, the ‘silent Trabants’ mentioned in the title are actually blocks of GDR flats which light up at night, presumably like the car headlights. However, a block of flats looks absolutely nothing like a car, so it seemed like an awkwardly shoehorned-in GDR reference. The most intriguing part of this story concerns Muslim immigration to the new Bundesländer, and the ensuing culture clash between East and West and xenophobia of Eastern Germans towards ‘the Other’. The protagonist owns a German takeaway shop, mainly serving sausage of course, and becomes friends with a Muslim couple who live in the same block of flats as him. He falls in love with the woman in the couple, who is never named. I hope this is an intentional device on the author’s part and not merely an misogynistic oversight. Unfortunately, he’s also friends with Hamed, her boyfriend, and an awkward love triangle ensues, in which the protagonist buys the Qu’ran and goes to the Mosque at the weekend, seemingly just to get closer to her, whilst also whiling away the evenings with Hamed in the takeaway. So lots of ulterior motives going on here. I liked the undercurrents of racism – his takeaway loses customers because they see Hamed kneeling and praying through the glass – and the subtext of repressed desire.
Unterm Eis (Under the Ice)
This one was boring because it was about gambling, horses and horse racing. I really don’t like any of these things. I find gambling a complete waste of time and horse racing is cruel. Its only redeeming feature was the imagery of racing on a frozen lake in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps. I looked this up afterwards, and the yearly competition really does take place, and it is beautiful. Other than the descriptions, I had to force my way through this one.
Die Entfernung (The Distance Between)
I really liked this one. It had a supernatural element, which turned out to be less supernatural than I originally suspected. A freight train driver experiences a suicide on the night shift when a laughing man steps out in front of him on the tracks. The setting is really well developed, in the countryside next to some orchards and allotments in an autumn evening, miles away from anywhere. It’s idyllic, but also fairly desolate. There’s a really poignant moment when the train driver climbs out of the cabin to see what’s left of the man and ends up sliding down the bank next to the tracks and falling into some rotten fruit, clearly a metaphor for the remains of the suicide victim underneath the train. The train driver then seeks out the family of the deceased and pretends to be a childhood friend, clearly not wanting to tell his widow that he was the one who inadvertently killed her husband, whilst also wanting some closure about the man he accidentally killed. I’ve often reflected on the huge psychological toll of being a train or tube driver. Sooner or later, especially if you work on the London Underground, someone will commit suicide in front of your train. Clearly, this is not the driver’s fault, and whoever threw themselves under the train wanted to end themselves for one reason or another, but it obviously still has a hugely negative psychological impact on the person in control of the train, being viscerally confronted with the darkest and most desperate sides of the human condition. I found this story impressive and thought-provoking.
Die Rückkehr der Argonauten (The Return of the Argonauts)
This one was terrible. By the end of this story point, I was debating giving up on the book entirely. It’s about a man returning to his home town to meet up with old friends, and there seemed to be no premise other than that. His friends are either in the army and seemingly on a spiral of self-destruction, or already terminally ill because of that self-destruction. It’s full of drinking and machismo. One of his best childhood friends has liver failure from alcoholism. It’s pretty damn depressing the whole way through, and Meyer falls victim to the irritating current fashion of referring to people and places with initials. (“I travelled to S to meet up with H and his brother M”). It’s the modern authorial equivalent of smashed avocado on toast. I love avocado toast but I can’t stand this. It makes reading feel so disjointed and I forget who the characters are and what they’re supposed to represent. I have no sense of place and the characters seem instantly dead and flat because I can’t connect them with a name. It feels cold, detached, clinical and boring. Why do authors do this? Why? WHY?
In Unserer Zeit (In Our Time)
I liked the historical and political aspects of this story. The protagonist is a German-Jewish emigre living in Moscow in 1941, during Operation Barbarossa. The Fascists are approaching and the protagonist hides in the basement of the Lenin Library and then flees the city. He’s a writer himself, and entertains the soldiers in his halting Russian, telling stories of a German pirate called Störtebeker. The protagonist is a committed Communist and dreams of founding a new worker’s utopia in Germany after the War. Of course, we all know how that turned out. He is in a difficult situation, and faces suspicion from those around him simply for being German, despite being a victim and refugee of the Nazi regime. There were some beautiful descriptions in this story, such as those of the Moscow underground, but it also had its drawbacks. I wasn’t invested in the protagonist’s imaginary world surrounding Störtebeker at all. I was also confused when a mysterious new character was introduced 2/3 of the way through the story and seems to be pivotal. I did not have the inclination to become invested in him either.