The red-light cosmos
A brilliant neo-modernist exploration of the sex trade
In 2002 prostitution was decriminalized in Germany, and a new law came into effect granting sex workers basic social and legal rights. It also opened up plentiful business opportunities to the (for the most part, male) profiteers in the sector, including landlords, bar and nightclub owners, small- and big-time crooks, as well as traffickers. Clemens Meyer’s newly translated novel, Bricks and Mortar (Im Stein, 2013) is set in the 1990s and noughties in a fictional East German city that bears more than a passing resemblance to both Leipzig and Halle an der Saale, and charts the emergence of a new industry that did not exist in that form in the GDR. Venturing deep into the shadowy world of pimps, prostitutes and punters, Meyer presents the reader with a compelling chorus of voices in a neo-modernist masterpiece that explores not just the ethical complexities of the sex trade, but also the broader socio-economic transformations of post-1989 Germany.
Meyer makes few concessions to his readers. The narrative perspective shifts repeatedly, from first to second to third person; time and place are fundamentally unstable categories here; stream-of-consciousness and free indirect discourse are interrupted by transcripts from interviews, radio broadcasts and sections that appear documentary in tone. Hallucinatory and dreamlike sequences alternate with troublingly hyperrealist depictions of sexual acts; recurring leitmotifs (such as “my son, my son, what have you done”) structure a work that focuses predominantly on internal rather than external events; the mode vacillates between tragic and comic, encompassing a remarkable range of human experience, from the mildly disturbing to the outright shocking. Meyer’s multifaceted prose, studded with allusions to both high and popular culture, and superbly translated by Katy Derbyshire, is musical and often lyrical, elevating lowbrow punning and porn-speak into literary devices. A penchant for cinematic techniques such as montage and the literary equivalent of the long tracking shot, as well as a passion for the urban, place Meyer in the company of pre-war modernists such as John Dos Passos, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Alfred Döblin. Other direct influences include Hans Henny Jahnn, Hubert Fichte, Wolfgang Hilbig and Jörg Fauser.
Among the principal figures in this dizzyingly polyphonic novel is Arnold Kraushaar (aka AK), who leaves behind his violent past to become a property tycoon, renting flats to sex workers and protecting them from competing syndicates and gang masters. AK becomes increasingly bewildered and disorientated, culminating in a hallucinatory trip to Japan:
The alleys crossed and branched off and got lost in the dark, only to flare up again, bar after bar, hotels, strip bars, karaoke bars, love hotels, massage, blow job salons, mana tanga, garishly lit glass fronts, the windows elsewhere glowed dark red, you recognize the English words in among the many symbols, walls of glass, schoolgirls in uniform in the window, tiny women crowding a dark side alley, the glowing tips of their cigarettes, let there be light, you’re on the inside of the great machine, and onward, ever onward you walk . . . .
Then there is the nightclub owner Hans Pieczek, who dreams big, risking his life in the diamond trade. Other leading characters include an ageing policeman investigating the deaths of three people found buried in a bog; a West German Graf who opens a luxury brothel; and a former jockey seeking his daughter, a victim of child sex abuse who has disappeared – the most tragic of Meyer’s riders in the night. Perhaps most importantly, we hear the voices of numerous women working in the sex trade, some of whom are contented with their lot, some pragmatic, some resigned, some disgusted, some despairing. Others, like the young girl forced into prostitution alongside the jockey’s lost daughter, and to whose distressing stream-of-consciousness we are exposed in the novel’s darkest chapter, are profoundly damaged.
Both the men and the women in Meyer’s red-light cosmos are, with a few exceptions, generally benign; many are well-read and witty. The male protagonists are classic hard-boiled creatures – tough on the outside but with a soft centre – and more than capable of musing eloquently about Karl Marx, business economics and Buddhist philosophy. Yet their world is a perilous one, and their position in it perpetually under threat: warring syndicates flock into the city in search of new business opportunities, among them Turks, Yugoslavians, neo-Nazis and above all Hell’s Angels. When we first encounter AK he has just been shot; by the end of the novel he may well be on the Angels’ death list.
A compelling homage to the city and its various subcultures, to East German inventiveness, and above all to the people working in the sex industry, Meyer’s novel is also an exploration of neo-liberal capitalism and the laws of the market as they affect people at various social levels. While the sex trade may be more overtly violent than other forms of business, the laws of competition, and of supply and demand, are essentially the same – as AK, who studied economic management, is well aware.
The parabolic dimension of Bricks and Mortar is complemented by a network of mythological allusions. AK, who returns from the dead at the beginning of the novel, is also called Mister Orpheus; the leader of the Angels who gradually take over the city is referred to as the “man behind the mirrors”; and key scenes take place in the labyrinthine underbelly of a crematorium. While the novel would have benefited from tighter editing here and there, it is admirably ambitious and in many places brilliant – a book that not only adapts an arsenal of modernist techniques for the twenty-first century but, more importantly, reveals their enduring poetic potential.