Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer is the biggest of the big tomes on this year’s longlist and I have been reading it in between other books on the longlist over the last three weeks. For that reason, I’m not sure if I felt the full force of its power but as the book is so fragmented anyway, I don’t think I felt any more disorientated each time I picked it up again than I would have done if I had read it straight through without distractions. Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire, it follows a variety of characters involved in the sex trade in an unnamed East German city from the end of the Cold War to the present day exploring the consequences of legalised prostitution, corruption, capitalism, and much much more. Each chapter explores a different character associated in some way with the industry and the chorus of unique voices effectively becomes a collection of interconnected short stories. At the centre of the story is Arnold Kraushaar and his rise “from football hooligan to large-scale landlord and service-provider for prostitutes”.
Meyer himself claims that he writes “literature that hurts” (a truly excellent name for a genre, if ever there was one) and ‘Bricks and Mortar’ certainly falls into the category of difficult and challenging books. The non-linear storytelling and the unflinching nature in which Meyer explores the subject matter won’t appeal to everyone, but for the scale of ambition alone, I think ‘Bricks and Mortar’ stands a good chance of appearing on the shortlist which is due to be announced this Thursday. On the other hand, the varied collection of voices means that some parts are easier to read and follow than others, even when taking into account my fragmented reading of an already fragmented book, and I’m still not sure how well it all hangs together. It is very much a book which many readers will appreciate more than enjoy and I think it could be too polarising to be a potential winner.
For those who have already read the book, I recommend having a look at Katy Derbyshire’s translation note on her blog which provides some additional background and context about her interpretation of specific terms of vocabulary and other cultural references in ‘Bricks and Mortar’.
Translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton, Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson tells the story of Ari, a writer who returns to his childhood home of Keflavik after several years living in Denmark. The identity of the narrator is never made entirely clear but appears to be some sort of companion to Ari and has known him since childhood.
A cursory glance at Stefánsson’s Wikipedia page suggests that he may have drawn much of Ari’s story from autobiographical sources. As well as the present day, the plot focuses on Ari’s youth growing up in the 1970s and the 1980s near the US military base in Keflavik and also explores the life of his grandparents Oddur and Margrét in the early twentieth century. Although I was more intrigued by Oddur’s strand of the story overall, the different elements are intertwined very skilfully and present a compelling portrait of Ari’s family alongside significant events in recent Icelandic history (it’s worth mentioning that I found the footnotes about various figures in Icelandic culture very helpful here). The bleak setting is very evocative with plenty of weather imagery and vivid descriptions of the harsh landscape but there is also room for some light humour in places too. I also think Roughton’s translation is one of the smoothest I have come across so far in my longlist reading.
The ending is very powerful but I had the feeling that a lot had been left unsaid or unresolved, so I was pleased to see that a sequel (entitled ‘About the Size of the Universe’ according to a listing on Amazon UK) appears to be due out in March next year. Although other shadow panel members have read his other books, Stefánsson is an author who is new to me and I am also looking forward to reading his previous Heaven and Hell trilogy which has received high praise from sources I trust. ‘Fish Have No Feet’ is one of my favourite longlisted titles so far and I hope to see it on the shortlist this Thursday.