Only now appearing in English translation, Clemens Meyer’s debut novel — first published in German in 2007 — contains a late scene in which two teenagers doing community service run into their old teacher. A hard taskmaster before German reunification, he now offers them cigarettes from a case with the old GDR emblem and a motto: “Comradeship means Combat”. The young protagonist refuses the cigarette. But the motto could be his own.
Daniel Lenz grows up in crumbling east Leipzig during the 1980s and ’90s. From late-Soviet decline to post-Soviet collapse, While We Were Dreaming follows Danny and friends Mark, Rico, Paul, Little Walter and Pitbull, who take advantage of a vacuum in authority to do as they like. The Socialist security apparatus is gone, and their parents are abusive, absent or drunk. So they fight other boys, drag cigarette machines out of walls with stolen cars, or rob old women who ask them to do odd jobs. At the gang’s zenith, they run an illegal techno club out of an abandoned factory near the city limits.
Chapters are organised achronologically. The German author used a similar approach to narrative in his other novel to be translated into English, Bricks and Mortar, which was written seven years after this but appeared in the UK first. Each episode here has a self-contained shape, with distinct phases of humour, shock and pathos. The narrative nips back and forth between the group on the cusp of adolescence, and when they are in and out of prison and rehab, or worse. What some of them were like as children is cleverly saved for much later, once we know who they become.
Meyer skilfully punctures the attempts of boys and men to appear hard. Kids cooking shoplifted pizza in a new microwave, pretending it tastes good. Failed acts of disobedience: “Rico had found a big nail and wanted to puncture [a police officer’s] tyres, but he couldn’t get the nail in the rubber.” Danny gets a prison tattooist to ink him, so people might think he spent time inside. “I’m scared my arm’s going to drop off ’cause it’s really swollen like I’ve got huge muscles, which I have”. The tattooist goes back to jail before finishing, leaving Danny with “a skull with no eyes”.
Like the book’s treatment of the political landscape, which is shaded in subtly, there is no direct narrative comment on Danny’s behaviour. No sign of the explicit self-reflection we might expect from contemporary equivalents, such as Gabriel Krauze’s Who They Was or Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team, which also drew on their authors’ violent youths. (Meyer, like Danny, spent time in a young offender institute in the Leipzig area.)
While We Were Dreaming, which was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, has the strengths of a good first novel: a vivid sense of place and detail; a focus on voice, rendered wonderfully in Katy Derbyshire’s translation. But it exhibits the clichés of an exuberant debut too. Minor characters might be brought to life, their stutters represented phonetically, or the back-story behind their nicknames elaborated, then never appear again. Conversations, scenes and whole chapters add more colour than consequence.
In real life, social groups are composed of similar people doing similar things. But this poses problems for authors of realist fiction. It’s hard work differentiating characters who share a strong collective identity, and then managing them.
Meyer has to do this for a core of six, some of whom appear interchangeable for long stretches, plus an extended social group and members of other crews. “I almost forgot about him”, one central character says of another. This was 200 pages in, and I knew the feeling. I wondered why Meyer didn’t cut or amalgamate some characters, before I understood his sad structural quandary: this would leave too few to collectively remember the ones who die.
While We Were Dreaming by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire, Fitzcarraldo Editions £16.99, 528 pages
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