Bricks and Mortar

Clemens Meyer’s Bricks and Mortar is the most intimidating novel on the Man Booker International Prize long list (it didn’t make it through to the official shortlist, but may well feature on the shadow jury shortlist due on Thursday). Yes, the intellectual fireworks of Enard and the relentless satire of Yan Lianke are a challenge for any reader, but Meyer’s novel is not only the longest (653 pages and, according to the author, originally twice that length), but is constructed from a montage of narrative voices and styles. The brick analogy is almost inescapable – dense, hard-hitting and possibly weighing the same – but mortar also suggests the way it has been put together, cementing various viewpoints into a three-dimensional thirty years of German prostitution.

The first voice we hear is that of a contemporary sex-worker (it’s 2011; the novel was published in 2013):

“The first guest was crap. The second one was OK. That’s how you have to look at it otherwise you go crazy.”

She sees her job as a way of earning money for the future:

“That’s what I say to every girl who wants to get into the business. If you don’t watch out one day you’ll be left with all your money down the drain. Times get harder and you can work and work until you go grey and your tits go wrinkly to get out of that misery again. That won’t happen to me. I’ve got plans.”

It’s a theme the novel will return to (“I see it all purely rationally. I milk and I milk and I put away what I can”) as Meyer’s main focus is not sex, but money.

Meyer’s opening chapter humanises what follows (as well as acclimatising the reader to the various acronyms for sex acts they will need to decode later passages) but female voices will be in the minority. This is the sex industry as industry and Meyer’s attention is on those at the top, how they got there, and how they stay there. In content (though not in presentation) the novel features many of the scenes we are familiar with from the gangster genre on film and television: deals in the dark corners of clubs and dingy cafes, betrayals and power grabs, and, beneath it all, the violence which at any moment might punch through.

Meyer can be clever with this. Take, for example, Hans’ (one of a few recurring characters) conversation regarding a plan to smuggle diamonds. “Show me the rocks. I want to see them,” the other man demands, ending the scene. A few lines later we are told: “He doesn’t know what to do with the body.” Much of the novel is made up of le Carre-like conversations, however, only more oblique.

Meyer uses the sex trade as an example of capitalism, hence his particular interest in the fall of the Berlin Wall. At one point in the novel it’s discussed in terms of the Wild West with “a real gold-rush feeling”:

“The mass migration, the mass copulation. You wouldn’t believe all the crap that flowed into the East then, early ’90. What a load of cheap trinkets and junk food we lugged over there.”

Arnold, another of the recurring characters, who starts out as a football hooligan but is soon making his money renting apartments to sex-workers, goes to night school to learn about business:

“The lecturer gestures at the board with a pointer. ‘Growth Strategies.’ Yes, that interests Arnold Kraushaar. He listens and stops watching the two girls diagonally in front of him.”

At one pint the old criminal gangs are compared unfavourably to the new capitalist approach (prostitution was legalised in Germany in 2002):

“Turncoats suddenly becoming big bosses. Business, deals. And no sense of honour anymore. Sounds stupid, I know. Capitalism, I know. The old rules don’t apply anymore.”

More than money, more than sex, the novel is infused with loneliness, a loneliness which is echoed in the disconnect between the chapters (and with the reader). When we first meet Arnold he is alone, lying in the street:

“…you feel your head on the asphalt, as if it had sprung a leak when it hit the ground, is it raining?”

Hans, too, is frequently alone:

“Hans turned on the TV, flicked through all the channels with the remote, stopping for a moment on a crime show repeat on a regional channel, two detectives from Munich, he liked them a lot, they’d gone grey over the years, both of them, they had no family either as far as he could tell but they didn’t seem unhappy…”

Bricks and mortar are mentioned in every chapter, but the surface to feature most is mirror, creating the illusion of company, and the threat of being watched.

Bricks and Mortar is an astonishing achievement for both Meyer and translator Katy Derbyshire. It is a difficult journey for the reader – sometimes emotionally, as with the chapter The Columbus Butterfly which features children, but largely because the text itself seems filled with shadows which no amount of bright lights and mirrors can remove.

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8 Responses to “Bricks and Mortar”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I have mixed feelings about reading this. 653 pages is quite an investment of time, so I am on the fence. Did you enjoy it as much as Compass?

    • 1streading Says:

      No, I much preferred Compass, which isn’t to say that this isn’t an achievement. The numerous narratives and back-and-forward chronology do make it a bit of maze though.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I don’t think this is a book for me (too hard-hitting and emotionally draining), but as ever I enjoyed reading your review. I particularly liked your opening comments on the bricks and mortar analogy.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. Yes, I must admit you would not be the first reader who came to mind for this one! I’m not sure I would have picked it up myself but then the whole point of reading a prize list is to read outside your comfort zone.

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    It’s a horrific book at times but also very honest look at the world through the eyes of the girls involved

  4. Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Just another WordPress.com weblog « Bricks and Mortar […]

  5. The Man Booker International Prize 2017 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Moses by Alain Mabanckou (France), translated by Helen Stevenson and published by Serpent’s Tail Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions […]

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