Once upon a time there lived a little girl who was stubborn and inquisitive, and whenever her parents told her to do something she refused. How could things possibly go well for her? One day she said to her parents: “I’ve heard so much about Mother Trudy. I’d like to go visit her. They say that her house is quite strange and that odd things happen there. That’s made me really curious about her.”
The girl’s parents gave her strict orders not to go near the house, and they told her: “Mother Trudy is an evil woman, who does wicked things. If you go to see her, you’re no longer our daughter.”
But the child paid no attention to what her parents said and went to see Mother Trudy anyway. When she arrived at the house, Mother Trudy asked her: “Why are you so pale?”
“I saw something that really scared me.”
“What did you see?”
“On your staircase I saw a black man.”
“That was just the charcoal burner.”
“Then I saw a green man.”
“That was just a huntsman.”
“And then I saw a blood red man.”
“That was just the butcher.”
“Oh, Mother Trudy, I was so scared. I looked through the window and couldn’t see you, but I did see a devil with a fiery head.”
“Aha!” she said. “Then you saw the witch in all her finery. I’ve been hoping that you would come here, and I’ve been waiting for a long time. You can provide me with some light.”
And with that, she turned the girl into a block of wood and threw it on the fire. And when it was blazing, she sat down beside it, warmed herself up, and said: “Now that really does give off a nice bright light.”
- ‘Mother Trudy’ from “The Bicentennial Edition, The Annotated Brothers Grimm (Translated by Maria Tatar)
German Fairy Tales (or Märchen) take on various forms, we’ve all heard of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘Snow White’, probably less so ‘Mother Trudy’, but Clemens Meyer’s “Bricks and Mortar” picks the threads of these classic tales, mentioning a few by name, and then represents them in the reality of modern Germany, from the period just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall to (possibly) the current day. But the tale of a developing, changing Germany is told through the eyes of the sex industry. Can “Little Red Riding Hood” be linked to the “red light industry”? Is “Mother Trudy”, one of the tales recalled by our first narrator, a sex-worker, a metaphor for all female sex-workers?
And this is no short fairy tale, running to 653 pages, it is a long work indeed.
In this novel the character’s blur, the dead talk, people take the lead role and then move back into the shadows, time is not linear, we have one character talking about 9/11 and it is 1999!!! Told in a multitude of voices, you are not always certain who is the narrator, nor their role in this kaleidoscope, rest assured things do draw together the further you travel into this melting pot.
An exploration of capitalism, economies, a unified Germany (and sex), this book, at no stage, enters cliché mode, the football hooligan who becomes a landlord for the apartments used by the prostitutes, gives economic rants about the number of workers, the rooms, euros and then refers to Stanisław Lem’s “Solaris”. An alcoholic ex-jockey spends his nights looking for his young daughter who has become a street worker, a policeman who works on a cold case of three bodies found in the bottom of a peat bog;
am I the only person who sees that? That the markets and the marketplaces are becoming more linked, steel and concrete town halls, the meat markets expanding, the bricks and mortar, sticks and stones, the rock growing, in a red-lit circle where everything’s linked, the rubbish truck, the fat woman, the Coke, the Viagras, the blockers, uppers and downers, lost cats, the right to sexual self-determination, scraps of memory like old police badges, the Angels on their motorbikes, peat mosses, flyovers, sixty-six municipal brothels in 1865, trade chronicles, he burrows in the old files, real estate on silver strings leading all the way to Italy, and the fall of the real-estate boss Silvio Lübbke, three bullets, boom, boom, Dead Peppers Alley, houses for pocket money, clues, clues, the country air so clean and pure, soon they’ll be building here but we’ll stop the diggers, the question is, who brings three bodies out to this mire, the swamped puddle, where everyone knows they won’t decompose, when you can dig holes in the sandy ground of the heath or drive out to the forest lakes like the ‘Blue Eye’, and there must be anglers there who discover the remotest of lakes, the woods arching around the north-eastern belt of the suburbs and incorporated villages to the south, all of if as flat as a pancake. (pp 176-177)
Uppers, downers, alcohol, tobacco and Viagra, each scene the language and style mirrors the drug of choice, with sentences lingering or rapid and short, moving from 1st to 2nd to 3rd person, each scene descends or ascends holding a mirror to a seedy existence, it can be pacy or languid, an hallucinogenic romp, but there is hardly any colour here, it’s all shadows nightclubs, swamps and darklands.
As Meyer says himself, this is an “unorganized flow” (should that read “disorganised flow”?), you need to allow the language, the mood, the environment of each section, voice, character to simply sink in, there is no point in over analysis;
A park opposite. Snow on the trees, towers behind the park, behind the trees, far away or very close by, the distances change, tower blocks connected by bridges, corridors of glass, A temple-like low building with a curved roof among the white and green of the park, for the trees aren’t bare, winter in this city, but days, you remember them now, that smelled of spring, the air suddenly mild and the sky clear, no grey any more from which the snow fell wet on your face, but then another icy gust of wind that grabbed you on your paths through the night, on your way along the neon alleys, along the river, across empty parks like small woods, where are you going? And what are you looking for? (pp 411)
Each section (chapter?) has a reference to “Bricks and Mortar”, in various guises, nicknames, buildings, retaining walls, realigning a river’s flow, stability, and the real estate industry. The juxtaposition of the Communism/Capitalism is subtle throughout, likely due to the blurring timelines, but it is the one constant subplot, at times is can be a little more blatantly pointed out as in;
There was always plenty to see on International Worker’s Day at the racetrack, on the terrace with bubbly and finger food. (pp 460)
A bleak fairy tale of a unified Germany, told through the eyes of a sector that either boomed or plummeted depending upon what side of the wall you came from, and whether you were the exploited or the exploiter. Using a plethora of styles this is a complicated and many layered work, with sub-plots a plenty, including the ex-jockey’s child prostitute daughter, the bodies in the bog, diamond smuggling, to list just a few. There is reference to the Prostitution Act of 2002 and the changes that brought into place, although the one (slight) failing I found with the book is that he female characters appear more as meat or commodities rather than human, with the male characters getting more depth to their motivations and behaviours, however this may be an intentional portrayal as in the industry they are forever changing and are treated in that manner.
After the Wall, things really took off on the building sites. The cranes grew up to the sky, that’s how he’d put it. Shut up. He drives through the suburbs, the high-rise estates, Schönewweide’s not such a pretty meadow as the name suggests, he stopped at some building site, got out of the car and took a few steps toward the scaffolding, breathed in the smell of dust, earth and damp, breathed deeply. Sometimes he wishes he could stand on roofs again, walk along scaffolds, gut flats, make the mixture, breathe in that smell. (pp 584)
A book that is not for the faint-hearted, it contains numerous descriptions of sexual perversions, however not without context and not in any way gratuitous. As I mentioned before this is not a clichéd work, a many levelled construction all mixed up, hallucinogenic style, throw in a hint of dreams, a cemetery, a crematorium, even Japanese scenery, and you’ve only scratched the surface of Clemens Meyer’s novel that was shortlisted for the 2013 German Book Prize. Keeping the tradition of German Fairy Tales, this is a dark dark Fairy Tale, why not throw another young girl on the fire the brighten things up?
Can it win the Man Booker International Prize? It is hard to judge, as this is a book that will certainly polarise the judges, it would, therefore, be a bold decision to declare it the winner, even if it is worthy of the top gong. Personally I rate it highly, however time will tell if my tastes align with the judges (and the Shadow Jury)!