Category: Fiction

Clemens Meyer
Die stillen Trabanten
[Silent Satellites]

Stories

Night Pieces

The writer Clemens Meyer may have an image problem, but it’s partly of his own making. He used to party hardy whenever he won a literary prize, and otherwise seemed to revel in adopting the pose of an East German prole. The subject matter of his successful debut novel, As We Were Dreaming, fit this image well, with its underdogs and brawls in wild post-socialist Leipzig. Thus, the cliché was ready at hand whenever a new work appeared.

His novel Bricks and Mortar (2013) proved he was a writer who could work with incredible precision and a very conscious use of language, but again the topic fit the bill. Pimps and prostitutes? Say no more. An easy conclusion if you haven’t heard Meyer’s rousing Frankfurt Poetics Lectures and especially if you haven’t read his new book of stories Die stillen Trabanten (Silent Satellites), a book that almost gives the impression he’s shed his bulletproof vest and presented himself without his armor. Die stillen Trabanten was written by the same Clemens Meyer of old, but this time he demonstrates for all the world to see that behind the tough façade there’s a certain vulnerability, behind his words a tremendous love of humanity.

Leipzig – not Meyer’s birthplace, but his adopted city – is the setting of these nine stories which, grouped into three sections, are each preceded by brief overtures. Almost all the stories are night pieces. They tell of individuals who are normally all but invisible to us, who literally drift through the night, are wounded or redundant, have hang-ups or suffered some calamity, or in some way had their lives disrupted. Sometimes it’s just a hunch, you think it has to be that way, otherwise they wouldn’t be so withdrawn, so lost in a world of their own in which they still have to function, somehow.

One of the finest stories in the book is called "Late Arrival," about a certain Frau Fischer, presumably one of the many losers of German reunification. Working shifts cleaning trains at Leipzig’s main station, she seems to have grown rather negligent lately, and has even been reprimanded for it. After work she walks down the tracks to the station, where she sits at a bar and drinks what she calls "Little Marys" – coffee laced with "Mariacron" brandy. Sometimes after work she forgets to take off her orange safety vest. No one cares. One day she meets a woman at the bar: Birgitt with two T’s, early sixties, hairdresser (not a hairstylist) by trade. Something develops between these two women. Friendship, perhaps with a faintly erotic component, but all of that’s uncertain.

Clemens Meyer conveys truths and details, minute observations about the moment. It’s remarkable the way he captures his characters – his cast of marooned nocturnal figures – in small, atmospheric mood pieces. "And the two nodded once again, looking somewhere past each other, the panes of glass reflecting for them the inside of the station pub, the other tables low and high, the fat man topping off his glass, the fat man looking like a teacher, round spectacles on the bridge of his sweaty, shimmering nose, beer foam on glasses, a man leaning on a gambling machine at the other end of the room, tossing in more coins, the bright lights of the machine flickering on his face, smoke above the rectangular counter, a man eating a wiener at a bar table, the radio so quiet it was almost inaudible."

In another story, a young man in an old woman’s squalid apartment, where’s he’s ended up by sheer chance, adopts the role of soldier-grandson stationed in Afghanistan. His protagonists roam through the night, looking for solace, or just a few minutes of company and sharing. Clemens Meyer has found a gentle, subdued tone for these stories, which many, given his image problem, would not have thought him capable of. Yet the quieter Meyer speaks, the more his marginal characters shine.
Christoph Schröder

By Christoph Schröder, 05.03.2018

​Christoph Schroeder is a freelance writer (Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Die Zeit) based in Frankfurt am Main and is a lecturer in literary criticism at the university there.

Translated by David Burnett