While We Were Dreaming, originally written in German, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here
Rico, Mark, Paul and Daniel were 13 when the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989. Growing up in Leipzig at the time of reunification, they dream of a better life somewhere beyond the brewery quarter. Every night they roam the streets, partying, rioting, running away from their fears, their parents and the future, fighting to exist, killing time. They drink, steal cars, feel wrecked, play it cool, longing for real love and true freedom.
There’s this nursery rhyme I know. I hum it to myself when everything starts going crazy in my head. I think we used to sing it when we hopped about on chalk squares, but maybe I thought it up myself or dreamed it. Sometimes I mouth it silently, sometimes I just start humming it and don’t even notice because the memories are dancing in my head, no, not just any memories, the ones of the time after the Wall fell, the years we – made contact?
Contact to the brightly coloured cars and Holsten Pilsener and Jägermeister. We were about fifteen back then and Holsten Pilsener was too bitter for us, so we’d usually drink local. Leipzig Premium Pilsener. It was cheaper too, seeing as we sourced it straight from the brewery’s backyard. Mostly at night. The Leipzig Premium Pilsner Brewery was the epicentre of our neighbourhood and our lives. The wellspring of long drunken nights in the suburban cemetery, endless orgies of destruction and dances on car roofs in the Bockbier season.
Original Leipzig Pilsener let loose our bottled blond genie, who grabbed us by the hair and lifted us over walls, magicked cars into flying machines and lent us his carpet to float away on, spitting down on the cops’ heads.
Usually, though, those strangely dreamlike flying nights ended with a crash-landing in the drunk tank or on the corridor of the nick, handcuffed to a radiator at Leipzig Southeast Police Station.
When we were kids (are you still a kid at fifteen? Maybe we weren’t anymore, that first time we faced a judge, usually a woman judge, or the first time the police drove us home at night and we went to school the next morning, or not, with the 8 from the handcuffs still imprinted on our skinny wrists), when we were good kids, the epicentre of our neighbourhood was the big Duroplast State Toys and Rubber Stamps Factory, where an otherwise insignificant classmate got us rubber stamps and toy cars from his stamp-pad-manufacturing mother, so we never beat him up and sometimes gave him a few coppers, or let’s call them aluminiums, ’cause that’s what our coins were made of back then. The big factory went bust in 1991 and they tore the building down, and the little rubber-stamp and toy-car fence, his mother was out of a job after twenty years and hanged herself in the outside toilet, so we still never beat the insignificant boy up and sometimes gave him a few coppers. There’s an Aldi there now – I could pop in for cheap beer or spaghetti.
That thing about the boy’s mother, it’s not true. She got a job at a new Shell garage in 1992 and pretended not to recognize us when we bought beer or vodka or korn from her, because it was night and the shops were shut and the walls of the Leipzig Premium Pilsner Brewery were just too high sometimes.
On nights like that, I often think of Alfred Heller, the kid we called Fred. He had a face gone greyish blue from all the drinking, like ripe stilton.
The best thing was, the brewery was there even when we couldn’t see it, when we were carrying an old lady’s handbag home for her a couple of streets over, or when it was night (I mean those terrible dark nights in winter, when all you see is the lights and you feel so sad), or when we closed our eyes as we drove past. The big old Leipzig Premium Pilsner Brewery was there. We could smell it. It smelled so fucking great, it really did, tangy like hops, a bit like tea only way better. When the wind blew the right way, we could smell it for miles.
And I can still smell it now when I open the window even though I’m far away, but the others don’t believe a word of it. And how would they know anyway – I haven’t told them – and when we’re lying in our beds on sleepless nights, I bite down on the corner of my blanket to stop myself telling tales of those wild times.
On nights like that, I often think of Alfred Heller, the kid we called Fred. He had a face gone greyish blue from all the drinking, like ripe stilton. Fred was a couple of years older than us but he looked fifteen, wore these round glasses like a good little schoolboy, and then he’d joyride stolen or dirt-cheap cars without a licence, around our neighbourhood and all round town. Sitting in a car with him was weird because there was hardly any space, too many beer cans on every surface, and we did the craziest things on our nights out with him. Something happened to us when we got in a car with Fred, something made us lose all inhibitions, we felt this absolute freedom and independence we’d never known before, and we yelled it out; it was like the witch with five cats who lived next door to me had cast a spell on Fred’s beaten-up cars. Sometimes we used the rolled-down passenger window as a surfboard, holding onto the roof with one hand. It was like a merry-go-round after a bottle of Stroh 80.
This one time, speeding through the city, wasted Fred let go of the steering wheel and said, ‘Shit, I can’t hack it no more.’ I was in the back, between Mark up to his eyeballs on drugs and Rico, still clean back then, and we couldn’t hack it either and we only had eyes for the lights of our city racing past us. And if it hadn’t been for Little Walter, who was in the front seat next to a suddenly resigned Fred, and whose life I saved twice in one night, later on (and who still just walked out on us, on another night much later), if he hadn’t grabbed the steering wheel and jumped on Fred’s lap – slumped down on the driving seat – and brought the car to a halt with a whole load of burnt rubber, I’d be dead now, or I might have lost my right arm and have to do all my paperwork left-handed.
Fred Heller had a brother, Silvio. Silvio didn’t have Fred’s criminal energy, but he did play chess. The brothers lived together and while Fred & co. were doing dirty deals in the living room, I’d play chess in the kitchen with Silvio. He had his own interpretation of the rules, but I accepted it ’cause (like he told me once as he balanced his bishop on the top of the vodka bottle and checked me from there, or rather checked my king) the Ghetto doctors had fucked him up in the days of the Zone and he only had a few years left to live. There must have been some truth to it because he dragged one leg and his left arm was almost lame. Aside from that, his face would sometimes make these really weird contortions, he’d roll his eyes ’til the whites went green and beat his head against the chessboard (I was scared he might get one of the pointy bishops stuck in his eye). The whole thing impressed me so much that even in winning positions, when my knight was raping his king (by his rules), I’d give up right away, bite the head off my king and stick it in the four-star freezer compartment, run off to Fred & co. in the living room and join in the dirty deals.
The Ghetto doctors fucked him up. Took me a while to work out what that meant, ‘Ghetto,’ when Fred and his brother were telling their tales. Their parents had given them up and they’d been in a secure facility for kids and teens with behavioural issues for years, in the Ghetto, and Silvio must have had too many of the antidepressants and hush-you-up jabs and messed up his liver and kidneys. Sometimes he talked about experiments, but I don’t think that was true. I once asked Fred if he was still in contact with his parents. ‘No,’ he said, ‘my knife gets a hard-on when I see them.’ Old Fred probably gets a hard-on when the wind blows these days, ’cause he’s in some bastard jail. I don’t know what his last trick was that got him put inside, all I know is he was on probation for the umpteenth time and his file was as thick as Meyers Encyclopaedia, and all I know is what I’ve been told and what’s turned to legend, almost, by now.
He was driving around town and the cops were on his tail, it was night and he was at his normal alcohol level, and somehow it suddenly took hold of him. He’d probably planned it as his last big show. Certainly had style. Slammed on the brakes. Turned the car 180. Pedal to the metal. Rammed the first cop car. Rammed the second cop car. Reversed and did the same again. Don’t know how many times. They say the cops couldn’t get their doors open in the end. Then he got out and stuck his hands up like Billy the Kid, and said: ‘I surrender.’
I don’t know if the cops climbed out of their concertina cars through the sunroofs but in any case, the first one who came stumbling towards him got a punch in the face that broke his nose, and Fred’s been gone ever since. Even though he told me before that he’d never go back inside the Ghetto and he wanted to give up all that crap. And I almost believed him. This one time, see, Fred and me and my old school friend Mark, already up to his eyeballs on drugs even then, we were in a bar and these guys tried to start a fight with Fred (about some old dealings, he said), but he wouldn’t rise to it, not even when they tipped beer over his face. And when I reached for a bar stool he said: ‘Leave it, Daniel, forget it, this is my business.’ The three guys were next to us at the bar and one of them nudged Fred so hard he fell off his stool. His glasses smashed but he put them back on, blinked through the broken lenses and said to me: ‘Leave it, Daniel,’ and to them: ‘I’m not doing a thing, you tosspots, I’m on probation.’ He kept on saying it as they pushed him around, and one of them hit him in the face a couple of times. Then Fred pulled out a jack-knife, there was a quick click and the blade stood upright, and he laid his left hand on the bar and rammed the blade through it into the wood. ‘You nasty fucking poofters aren’t getting me out of here!’ They fucked off then and I called a doctor. And before the doctor came and pulled out the knife, which was jammed pretty deep into the wood, me and Fred had a couple of shots of double-distilled korn, while the landlord wiped away the surprisingly small amount of blood. Never in his life had he felt this good, Fred said, with one hand nailed to the bar.
My old school friend Mark, sitting next to us off his head, didn’t notice a thing. He still doesn’t notice a thing these days, ’cause he’s strapped to a bed in some empty white room, in rehab.