The fiction of German writer Clemens Meyer first came to English in 2011, in Katy Derbyshire’s translation of his story collection All the Lights. Since then, she has ferried many of his other works across the Germanic divide: his sophomore novel, Bricks and Mortar, was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and won the Straelener Translation Prize. A later collection of stories, Dark Satellites, appeared in 2021. But While We Were Dreaming (Fitzcarraldo, 2023), Meyer’s celebrated debut novel, first published in Germany in 2006 and written in a slang-slung and clipped variety of urban German, has remained untranslated until now.
The book follows Meyer’s literary alter ego, Danny and his motley crew of friends—Rico the boxer, Mark, Estrellita, Little Walter the carjacker—through the years just before and after Germany’s 1989 reunification. It’s clear from the first line that Danny’s in a rough spot: “There’s this nursery rhyme I know. I hum it to myself when everything starts going crazy in my head.” Derbyshire has made small alterations to prepare sentiments, not only words, for English readers, changing the German child’s rhyme (Kinderreim) to “nursery rhyme” and playing crazy (verrückt zu spielen) to “going crazy.” She is neither playing around nor going around the original but channeling it.
Danny is unsure whether he used to sing that rhyme while he “hopped about on chalk squares” or whether he dreamed it up in the years since. In his first paragraph, he’s spotted his own spotty memory. What, he doesn’t bother wondering, is the German for “hopscotch”? (“Himmel und Hölle.” Heaven and Hell. This is not insignificant, given that he remembers all this from prison.) He does recall, though, his later childhood, “the time after the Wall fell, the years we—made contact?”
He is alien to his own country, as he begins. He is, himself, a translator. His tale’s first death occurs on the second page: right after Germany’s reunification, his friend’s mother has lost her job at Leipzig’s once-state-run toy factory and hanged herself “in the outside toilet.” Then it’s quick downhill for Danny and his friends. Not because of that one death but because such sordid death becomes standard, even casual in their neighborhood once Germany has reunited. Friends die of overdoses, get beaten with fenceposts in street fights with the local skinheads, crash hot-wired cars, hopped up on Leipzig Premium Pilsner they’ve boosted over the brewery fence in the flicker-lit night.
The novel’s heart palpitates in the Palast Theater. As kids, Danny and his gang spend weekends watching Westerns like Old Shatterhand in the front row, then come of age jerking off to new West German porn in the back seats through the summer of 1990. Soon after the fall, the Palast burns down. Danny hears from Thilo, who trades info for liquor minis, that his friend Mark now shoots heroin in the theater’s ruins. Danny finds him there and, hoping to lure him away from heroin, tells him about the “old days, about Little Walter, about Fred, about the Eastside, about Goldie’s bar where we used to drink . . .” When he finishes his tale—microcosmic rough draft of the novel itself—he finds that Mark has left, unable to listen.
On the surface, While We Were Dreaming identifies itself here as the outpouring of Danny’s savior impulse. Beneath that, his inner editor is born in the theater, born of the intrusive terror (or error), “If only I had given Mark the right words . . . ” His desperation only builds, its consistency taking the place of a linear plot, producing no clear climax but a range of peaks of memory, a series of complete but connected stories illicit enough to be incriminating, raw enough to contract venereal disease, and shining enough at times to warrant veneration: “Rico who was once Leipzig’s best boxer,” Danny tells Mark, or the space where Mark had sat in the charred Palast, “danced around the ring and was sure to dance again one day.”
Because the narration of the book is nonlinear, there is no definite beginning or direction. Each chapter brings us back to Danny, who narrates from behind bars (social or carceral), lurching from memory to memory in teutonic tussles of slang and percussive intensity, and on lines of association rather than time. In one instance, he recalls seeing his childhood love Estrellita dancing at a strip club. In another, he retreats a couple years and lands in a train tunnel where she stops a rival gang from beating him to death. Going further back, now they’re twelve years old, and she is shy and small and spends her days picking locks for Fred the carjacker, and he names her Estrellita for the star on her oversized shirt. Then Danny snaps back out of memory to the reality of his cell. Fallen, just like his comrades.
A literary paternity test on While We Were Dreaming ties it into a clear (if broken) family in the Anglophone world: Requiem for a Dream, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Junky. All ruminated, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 hit Trainspotting is its clearest stepsibling, in the books’ basic tone and content, if not in the style of Derbyshire’s translation. I’m not the first to claim this: The Guardian’s Alex Rayner identified Meyer’s short story characters as those of “an Irvine Welsh book on German streets” back in 2011.
But there is nothing in Meyer’s novel like the hopeful “choose life” with which Trainspotting’s narrator Renton frames his tale. Though each of Meyer’s characters talks a clipped vernacular like Welsh’s Franco Begbie and Spud Murphy and lives their wounded mixture of addiction, violence, and sensitivity, Danny offers no hope for anything like a way out. Word-level echoes of Trainspotting are sometimes blunt as the front of a crashed Trabant: “I’m so shite, I’m so shite,” Mark repeats in the Palast-Theater, refusing to be seen in the light of Danny’s stolen Zippo, as though Irvine Welsh’s Tommy were transported across time and space to the ex-DDR (which Meyer dubs “the Zone,” begging scholars to compare the ambient danger of his Leipzig neighborhood with the Soviet shadows of Andrei Tarkovski’s Stalker).
Derbyshire’s rendering of Meyer’s wordplay, though, especially in its compounding insults, runs far off from Trainspotting’s gutter-Scotch. After nailing his hand to the bar with a jackknife, Danny’s carjacker buddy Fred yells, “You nasty fucking poofters aren’t getting me out of here!” In German, “Ihr dreckigen Mistschwuchteln kriegt mich hier nicht weg!” That “dreckig” doesn’t carry so much emotion as Derbyshire’s “nasty,” but there’s the genius of it: those words “Mistschwuchteln kriegt” hold numbers and depths of connotations that English can’t mirror word-for-word. “Mistschwuchteln” might translate to American English as “shitfaggots,” plus the German diminutive ending “-eln,” making the already offensive insult more condescending. “Kriegt” means “to get,” but also relates directly to the verb “kriegen,” which means “to fight.” The word helps to bum a cigarette (“Darf ich ‘ne Kippe kriegen?”) as well as it describes war-bound soldiers.
In short, this translation captures the feel of the German with painstaking detail. The old cliché, the oft-assumed, never proven original sin of interlingualism, that things are “lost in translation” does not apply here to the language but to cultural touchstones—the significance of Korn (grain liquor) in the German alcoholic’s diet, the ease of hot-wiring an East German car, the norms of the earliest techno scene. We lose about as much reading Welsh. But these things were already history to Meyer (with the possible exception of the Korn) by the time he published this debut. So, in his own opening words, he goads us to “make contact?” both with his language and with his place and time.
That question mark is paramount, both for Meyer’s novel and Derbyshire’s translation. Have we made contact with the Leipzig of the late ’80s and early ’90s? Have we made contact with that German? In a purely emotional sense, I’d say yes, without reservation in either direction. This is, in the end, a nuanced and supersensitive translation of a soul-pummeling novel.