Small Towns In Germany

I read Dark Satellites by Clemens Meyer.

This is a collection of 12 short stories, divided in to 3 parts each with a page-long shorter piece at the start of each part. There are no common characters or connected places, though the title of the book appears in more than one place. With the exception of the final story, all are set in modern Germany since unification.

The translation is clear and uncomplicated. Only in “The Return Of The Argonauts” is there any attempt to make working-class dialogue sound like its British equivalent, with “oi” and “mate” as added ingredients. That story also makes the odd move of referring to a car needing an “MOT”, rather than the German HU and footnoting it for Anglo readers. The locations are provincial and we are nowhere near any fashionable or internationally renowned parts of the country, nor have these characters had much chance to know them. One of them has travelled abroad a great deal, but mainly to deprived parts of the Balkans. There are refugee hostels, and foreign criminal gangs are known to be active nearby, but the existence of a local mosque can be surprising to a man who thought he knew the district well.

These characters are mostly workers or small traders, who have not done badly but have not seen their lives get much better, especially those who remember the old DDR and have ambivalent feelings about the world that was lost. The old Russian barracks has been torn down but the security guard finds his beat is much the same as it was when he started years ago. Christa the cleaner is reprimanded for sloppiness in her job on the railway; the man running a burger bar is getting by and slowly making some savings; the labourers can still find work around the country if they want to travel to it. None of these stories have a great deal of plot, and the short section-heading pieces are simply similar material but cut down to the essential moment or encounter. What the stories share, regardless of whether they are narrated in the first or third person, is a sense of the individual consciousness flickering back and forth between overly-similar times and places, unclear and striving to find the persisting strands in a world that has changed overall yet at the local scale seems to have stayed the same.

It was an old world slowly disappearing, and its inhabitants disappeared with it. The Coal Quarter with all its odd people, like figures from legends and fairytales… Famous drinkers who got thinner and frailer like that Phineus M. tolf us about, an old man wasting away on an island, punished by the gods, and in the end all they could drink was peppermint liqueur and they’d do terrible things to each other on the drink, coal merchants who couldn’t sell coal because the stoves were no longer burning, faded tattoos on old skin, old grannies with elbows on faded cushions, looking out of the window all day long, kids who lives in the pubs like their fathers and sat in the rear yards by night, sat on the kerb and drank, moved out and back in again, death was on the prowl in our yards, in our buildings.

Death is on the prowl for many of these characters. The train driver who couldn’t stop to avoid running over a suicide has to pursue the details of the dead man’s life; the old man on the beach can’t help telling tourists the same stories about the railway and how it was destroyed in 1945; the ex-jockey is found dead, collapsed in his apartment. There are no overt shifts in to the supernatural, but some of these stories go into visions and delusional journeys. In “The Crack”, an office worker is disturbed by a robbery of his flat, and then wanders off on an odyssey to an old street he used to live near. Stepping in to an old record shop, he seems to step in to the identity of the lost dead grandson of the old woman who lives in the flat upstairs.

He lay on the bed, Lukas’s bed, and looked at the letters again. How many he had sent: postcards, long letters with photos enclosed. He seemed to be about his age. Mid thirties. Lukas in the mountains, Lukas by a river, Lukas in a Jeep, Lukas with locals, Lukas and the squaddies. ‘Dear Grandma, I’m doing fine, even though I’m often homesick.’

The structure of the book, as a set of 3 triads each having its own introduction, seems to indicate a deliberate thematic progression, which reaches a climax in the shift away from the present day in the final story, ironically entitled “In Our Time”. I think this book is an Hegelian meditation on the unfolding of consciousness in and about History, from the personal to the political.

Part One – the introductory story tells about workers “right by a dual carriageway” who discover that in the woods nearby a young boy has sickened and died after eating poisonous mushrooms. “the day was long and hot and we worked in silence until evening came”. That’s what all the narrators in the 3 stories that follow are doing: simply being spectators of trauma, but unable to put it together in any pattern. The security guard will continue to patrol around Unit 95, the old man on the beach will continue to talk about his memories.

Part Two – we start with the story of an old friend’s sick and dying father asking to be taken out to a fairground, so he can go up on the Big Wheel, where he can see the wind turbines he spent so many years working to build. The characters in these stories are trying to make a break out in to the wider world for an encounter with the other people, the other lives crossing their paths, trying to make a connection.

Part Three – “Wolf-men has been sighted in Wolfen”… but the journalist and photographer who ghoulishly hunt around for evidence, and finally settle for “a plastic bag of bones and offal” as evidence, have simply become conscious of their own behaviour pursuing the sensational story. And so for the other characters, whose attempt to connect with other lives brings them back to themselves. Here we get the understanding that connects “the old world slowly disappearing” with the individual lives within it, which eluded the minds in the first movement. Having been oblivious and lost in individual circumstance, the mind has come back to itself by putting itself inside a larger world and its greater history.

And do in the final story, we shift to the life of Willi Bredel, communist exile in Moscow in 1941, assisting in anti-Nazi propaganda as part of the war effort that he was fighting for since before 1933. Of course the history he is part of, and committed to, is the history of the DDR and Stalin’s world which was already over and finished when this book started. “Greed, cruelty and falsity rule the world” and the fugitive thought of stepping outside our own time to judge it remains when all the problems of representation have been audited. Bredel is not the hero of this book, but it points to him as trying to write about lives in time, in the darker satellite towns around the edges of the historical narratives, Germans thinking Germany.

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