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16 November 2023

Clemens Meyer’s lessons from history

The author on growing up in the GDR, the rise of the far-right and Germany’s “responsibility” for the conflict in Gaza.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Clemens Meyer was 12 when the Berlin Wall fell. The author, who grew up in Leipzig in what was then East Germany, remembers it well. “The whole world changed,” he said, matter-of-factly, “not immediately, but within a couple of months.” 

The differences became apparent in the look of Leipzig – “and the smell”. It had been “a grey city, in a nice way, quite a romantic way. The rivers were dark, industrial, there were factories all around the city, like big castles.” The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was socialist, a satellite state of the Soviet Union. “And then the new influence came in – the traffic started, the things you could buy on the streets, in the stores, new signs of the new system, new commercials all around.”

The fall of the wall and the resultant reunification of Germany, which would be formalised in March 1991, was an “interruption” to Meyer’s childhood. More influential still was the Nachwendezeit: the following period, until around 1994, when society learned to settle under its new system. “Who could expect that the change from socialism to capitalism could go without problems? Some of the younger people lost their way, because the parents and the teachers didn’t take care of them any longer. They had no time, they were involved in their own troubles, losing their jobs, losing their system. There was a hole – and some people fell in.”

It is his stark yet tender rendering of this period that has made Meyer a major literary figure in Germany. In his 2006 debut novel Als wir träumten (published this year, in Katy Derbyshire’s International Booker Prize-longlisted English translation, as While We Were Dreaming), Danny and his friends are entering adolescence in Leipzig, just as reunification begins. They become both victims and exploiters of the “hole” caused by the political moment: they shoplift, steal cars, beat up rival gangs. Some of them end up in youth detention centres and then prison. Others, we learn through Danny’s intimate, first-person narrative, don’t make it out the other side. The book was a bestseller in Germany and was adapted into a film in 2015.

Meyer was born in 1977. His mother worked in a children’s mental health hospital, and his father was a “medical guard, like a male nurse… but he probably wouldn’t like being called that”, he said, laughing, when we met in a café in central Leipzig. He has never considered leaving his home city, which has continued to change: it is now more multicultural than ever, and attracts creative young people because of its vibrant arts scene. Meyer avoids driving on Leipzig’s busy roads, instead cycling into the city centre, or to see his two children, aged nine and five, who live with his ex-wife. Without internet access at home, he takes his laptop to the train station to use the free wi-fi. An old Nokia mobile phone lay on the table next to his black coffee and slice of apple cake. He wore a blue floral shirt, its long sleeves almost hiding the tattoos that cover much of his upper body.

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When Meyer first rose to prominence more than 15 years ago, the literary world was fascinated by his tattoos. Now he prefers to keep them hidden. In While We Were Dreaming, tattoos are sought-after: they suggest time spent in prison, and therefore toughness. “Tattoo-Thilo” advises Danny to use butter to moisturise his new tattoos: “And my mum tells me off for using up all the butter,” he says. Back in the Nineties, Meyer really did put butter on his tattoos – before a professional artist told him it was “poison” for the fresh ink.

[See also: Netflix’s The Crown turns tawdry]

Meyer’s parents split up around the time of the reunification. Both were Christians, and politically active. Meyer went with his mother on the Montagsdemonstrationen, the 1989-90 anti-government protests that played a pivotal role in the fall of the GDR. In the demonstrations, which began in a Protestant church in Leipzig on Mondays and spread to other cities, citizens demanded the right to free elections. At the height of the protests, hundreds of thousands of people marched together. “I was part of history,” Meyer said.

During his teenage years, he spent some weeks in a youth detention centre. He was there for “some small stuff, stealing something or being drunk and destroying something. But not beating people up. I lived in this area and I knew the people around there and of course, you’re out, in the streets, and something happens. It’s the way it goes. But I never used drugs. I was just a drinker, a strict drinker.”

There are echoes of the impact of the reunification period in much of Meyer’s prize-winning work, from his 2008 short-story collection All the Lights, to his polyphonic novel Bricks and Mortar, which charts the development of the sex trade in an unnamed former GDR city. He is currently finishing his third novel, which he has been working on for seven years. “It’s about the madness of the 20th century.” As a young man, he read American writers including Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. But he liked Germans such as Thomas Mann too. “I always thought, if you want to become a writer, you have to study your forefathers. You are what you are and you come from where you come from.”

“Clemens Meyer is, like me, a member of what I sometimes think of as a bridge generation, except his bridge was longer than most and some of its stretches are still poorly paved,” said Joshua Cohen, the American author of novels including Book of Numbers and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Netanyahus. “Meyer prettifies nothing of the crossing, but then neither does he insist on the ugly, or on any particular difference between the ugly and the real. He is a realist, but one concerned with the voice, that rare type of writer who speaks through his characters in a way that makes them individuals. There’s an entire politics in this, I think: a belief that the only honest use of power is to empower.”

After witnessing so much upheaval in his lifetime, Meyer is now fearful of the current political situation, particularly the growing popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). (A July 2023 poll by the broadcaster Deutsche Welle had the party as the second most popular nationwide, and above the three parties that make up the current governing coalition.) The AfD has found particular favour in the east, which remains economically behind the west. Its leaders come from West Germany, but “they were well grounded in East Germany”, Meyer said. He blames the GDR regime for “brushing this stuff under the carpet”. There were neo-Nazis in the GDR in the Eighties, but the authorities said: “Don’t speak about it – because we are the state of anti-fascism. This does not exist in our community.”

Two days before we met, the Left party politician Sahra Wagenknecht announced the creation of a breakaway “far-left” alliance. “I’m not sure about her,” Meyer said. “If she takes some votes from the AfD, OK. But then the left is split again. And her party is named after her? How stupid. OK, Sahra Wagenknecht Party, my Führer Sahra Wagenknecht. I would not say that she is right-wing, but some ideas of hers are right-wing and some are very neo-liberal.”

Wagenknecht opposes weapons deliveries to Ukraine, and wants to cap immigration. It is this latter policy that is Germany’s most contentious political issue. During the height of the migrant crisis in 2015-16, when Angela Merkel was chancellor, the country welcomed more than 1.2 million refugees and asylum seekers. Concerns over integration and the economic effects have left problems for the country’s political parties. Meyer thinks Wagenknecht’s stance on immigration – like that of AfD – will be attractive to voters because of its transparency. “If the other parties would speak in a more open way about migration, I think a lot of voters would not vote for the AfD. I think 50 per cent who vote for the AfD are not right-wing. They are lost.”

The German media and state response to the crisis in Israel and Gaza has been widely pro-Israel. Pre-emptively fighting a rise in anti-Semitism, German authorities initially banned rallies expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people. Some have since been allowed to go ahead, with heavy police presence. During the opening ceremony of the Frankfurt Book Fair on 17 October the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek encouraged the audience to listen to voices from Palestine, and called the cancellation of an award for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli “scandalous”. His speech provoked walkouts.

“Slavoj Žižek was right,” Meyer said. “But Israel has the right to exist. And we are responsible for all this stuff there, the Germans. We killed big amounts of Jews. There would be no Israeli state without the Holocaust. They wanted an Israeli state before, I know. But without all that we did…” He stumbled, for the first time seemingly speechless. “Of course, you can’t like Netanyahu. But what right, as a German…? For us, it’s very difficult.”

Germany’s historical impact extends to Ukraine too. Under the Nazis, an estimated 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. “I don’t like the idea of sending weapons there. On the other hand, I understand why they want weapons, because Putin is this mad aggressor. He is old KGB, it’s neo-Stalinism. I have a big fear that this is not the beginning of the Third World War, but we were always in it. Next, China will go to Taiwan, and then…”

Clemens Meyer stopped himself. “But I must be hopeful. I have two children. And I want to write some books.”

“While We Were Dreaming” is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions

[See also: Books of the year 2023]

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