Clemens Meyer’s new book kicks in with a bang. Fastened to a bed in the psychiatric emergency department after a long night of excess, the narrator tries to manoeuvre himself across the room as the world shifts around him.
Gewalten is hard to categorise. First of all, the word itself is a slippery one, impossible to translate. Something like “forces” doesn’t quite do it justice. It also has clear overtones of violence and causality, and an air of Greek tragedy about it. And secondly, the book is billed as a diary but is plainly more than that.
There are eleven chapters, or perhaps they’re stories. But they all have the same narrator, a fictionalised Clemens Meyer constantly searching for whatever it is that stops the world from coming loose at the seams. And they’re each about a certain event in every month of 2009 – but you don’t have to be particularly au fait with last year’s current affairs in Germany to understand them.
One thing’s for sure though: if writing can ever be gendered, Gewalten is male. Dripping with testosterone in fact, with killers and sad little prostitutes and paedophiles and dogs and horses and football and mating leopard slugs. And male bonding, all that sport and then a moving tale of a childhood friend who dies, spotted again – where else? – in a dingy bar populated by the dead. All those repressed feelings, with the saddest moment when the narrator’s beloved dog dies almost hidden within a semi-technical description of how to get a locked door open.
The most disturbing story, though few of them will leave you feeling good about life, is an attempt to understand a young man who killed a nine-year-old girl after attempting to rape her. Written in a conversational tone that swerves and dodges and comes back to the subject at hand only to evade it again, it shows us a narrator driven by the need to understand what forces might make someone do such a terrible thing. And a narrator who is thoroughly unpleasant himself, at times: a slippery character who you might like in one moment, only to feel repulsed in the next story or on the next page.
There’s lots of gambling here, hardly a proto-feminine activity either, and the stories are almost held together by the gambler’s logic that there is a system behind everything, that everything happens for a reason and if we only get our calculations and probabilities right, we can make it big and make life work for us. Is the going soft or hard? Does the horse know the course, is the jockey on good form? Which is sad, really.
As ever, Meyer writes like a lexicon of modern American and German literature, with more snide references than you can put your finger on. And films! In one story the narrator is writing a screenplay about Guantanamo and gets drawn into his own imagination. In another he tries to extract thoughts from someone’s head like in The Shining. Everywhere concealed and overt plays on films, macho ones of course.
Reality slips away here and there, which is one of the things I like best about Meyer’s writing – that vortex of the imagination that mingles time and place on the page, making every reading a challenge that pays off, big-time. And I have to say this is the best thing he’s written, even better than the short stories that were even better than the novel. Clemens Meyer is one of Germany’s most exciting writers, and it’s high time the rest of the world cottoned on.