A novel set in a Leipzig red light district filled with prostitution and drugs following the fall of the communist regime, it reveals how the sex trade became a booming industry in the former East Germany.
This is not a story about the prosperity of young urbanites drinking latte macchiatos. Instead, gallons of beer are drunk, and rather than casual one-night stands, there is sado-masochism at flat-rate prices. Clemens Meyer immerses the reader in a sex industry world of red-light district clubs and apartment brothels.
Sex industry milieus
The novel explores sex industry markets and morals. Policemen, politicians and judges are just as fond of this milieu as petty criminals and young thugs are. Meyer has set his novel around an impenetrable network in Leipzig that veers between the legal and illegal.
And he lets almost all characters of the novel have their say — the pimps who are grinding out business at the university, the sex workers killing time between customers. Perspectives and tones change constantly.
"One cigarette an hour…The most I get through is fifteen a day, and that's alright, I reckon. Jenny smokes like a chimney and she's constantly spraying her air freshener around. Spring Lavender fragrance. I can't stand it. We don't do lot of talking. Sometimes we sit together in the lounge when we're waiting. I'd say we get along as colleagues. She's a totally different type than me. Three stones more than me, I bet, heading for motherly territory, but there's enough men into that, believe it or not."
Through soliloquies, dream sequences and more a factual reporting style, Meyer creates an all-seeing, panoptic view of the sex industry. But his study of this milieu is free from voyeurism and social romanticism, the writer's gaze instead focusing on broader economic drivers. Although the red-light scene has its own structures of governance, it clearly reflects the "real world" conditions during the immediate reunification period in eastern Germany.
For Meyer, globalization, international competitiveness and wage dumping were having an equal effect on the sex trade. Thus, the pimps are just as burned out as managers in his story, and the prostitutes fear younger competition from Eastern Europe.
Despite the exploitation and forced underage prostitution, the author again tries not to moralize. The almost casual language used by Meyer to describe their suffering makes this celebrated novel all the more touching.
In this telling, the sex trade is just another uncompromising industry that obeys the laws of the reigning capitalist market. It's a story that is artfully told in a novel that won international acclaim following its translation in 2013.
Clemens Meyer: Bricks and Mortar, Fitzcarraldo Editions, (German title: Im Stein, 2013). English translation: Katy Derbyshire.
Clemens Meyer was born in Halle an der Saale in 1977 and lives in Leipzig. His 2006 debut novel, As We Were Dreaming, was adapted into a film by Andreas Dresen in 2015. For five years, Meyer worked intermittently on his second novel, Bricks and Mortar, which was awarded the Bremen Literature Prize, the English PEN Award, and was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.