Friedrich, the young protagonist of Philip Hensher’s third novel, Pleasured, lives the sort of dismal half-life that was possible in Berlin before the Wall came down, the period when West Germans received subventions just for taking up residence there. It was a city that attracted the very old, who needed to bulk up their pensions, and the young, who wanted to study or just vegetate – or to escape compulsory military service (another advantage of living in Berlin). Not that you would learn any of this in Pleasured, which pleases (among several other ways) by never being didactic, at least not until the closing pages. Instead of explaining in a few orientating paragraphs what Germany was like on New Year’s Eve, 1988, when the action begins, Hensher plunges us into the experience, as conveyed by the actions but especially the conversation of his characters.
Friedrich Kaiser, to give the full, grand name borne by this loser, is underemployed and broke: ‘He lived in Kreuzberg; he had a job in a bookshop in Kreuzberg, minding the shelves, three afternoons a week; he drank and went out and saw friends in Kreuzberg. He had no children, or none he knew about; had never slept with the same girl more than five times; had written nothing; had no money; no family, now; was replaceable.’
The book begins when Friedrich is catching a ride back from Cologne to Berlin with two strangers: a pretty girl who has named herself, improbably, Daphne; and the driver, a mysterious Englishman called Mr Picker, who is fat, has a small son but no wife, lives in Berlin, has money but doesn’t work (though he might be working as a spy). Their tyre blows, Mr Picker hitchhikes into Berlin for help and Friedrich and Daphne are left behind to guard the car. The setting spooks them – the barricaded motorway passing through an alien county, which is also considered Germany – and to keep themselves warm they stumble through their idea of a tango as the snow falls.
Daphne is desperate to get back to Berlin and to ‘Mario’ (‘She was one of those people, he had noted, who referred to her friends by their first names, as if people so well known to her could hardly be unknown to anyone she happened to be talking to’). Although the scene of the tango in the snow is striking and the characters, especially Mr Picker, are intriguing, the prose is so seemingly directionless, ample for a few paragraphs then abrupt and excessively elliptical, that we are lulled out of any narrative expectations we might have until we’re suddenly drawn up short. It’s not that plenty of things don’t happen in this book: a woman discovers in the Stasi files that her lover was a spy; a child dies, partly of parental neglect; a good burgher at the age of retirement abandons his family but leaves behind a tape explaining his actions; two drunks create a riot at an art opening; an East German lad trains as a cyclist, then defects; and, finally, the Wall comes tumbling down.
But in its deliberately unflashy language, in the unintricate way sentence fragments accumulate, in its loquacious, sometimes tepid and aimless dialogue, which occasionally goes over a scene we’ve just observed, the prose builds up the haunting suggestion that anything is possible though nothing much is desired or desirable. The style also parallels the ugly, sprawling, largely featureless Berlin cityscape through a rhetorical device that English teachers used to dismiss as the ‘pathetic fallacy’ (an effect I’ve always rather admired).
Sometimes the writing is ‘good’ or at least attractive (‘lawns dark and wet as spinach’). Or the thoughts of another young man, Martin, one of Friedrich’s friends, become both fiendish and camp, though they sound slightly odd when we remember we’re supposedly reading a translation from the German. Take the hilarious moment when Martin very reluctantly escorts his ‘winsome’ niece, all dressed up in some ghastly frock of her own invention, through a museum too early in the morning.
What a little cow she was, the niece; what a little historian she was, the little cow ... standing there holding the ingrained hand of her Uncle Martin and smiling at anyone who expended any sort of gaze on her, whether in horror or amazement or sad lechery at her party frock and her pert expression; just knowing what she wanted was the attention of an adult, what she most wanted was to turn what she saw with her pale and shocked Uncle Martin, twitching slightly at this ungodly hour of the morning, turn what she saw into prose; yes, what a little historian she was, the little cow. Trolling her through the galleries, one room full of brown Dutch interiors after another, the best thing he knew to exhaust her, and all the time, exhausting himself only, telling her history, all the time dragging her back from one Reichskanzler to another, Kohl to Schmidt to Brandt to Hitler to Scheide-mann, back into the Kaisers ... and growing vaguer and vaguer, and backwards and backwards into a great accelerating storm of half-remembered things, of half-invented, half-recounted, events; and then, and then, and then, feeding the maw of the historian, feeding the eager snout, keeping it going, trying, above all, to explain, to keep the thing going.
Sometimes this prose has the obsessiveness of Thomas Bernhardt, his desire not so much to render a scene as to make the reader surrender, to wear down any resistance to its sinister blandishments through a chant that hypnotises, more than it convinces, us. Of course Hensher is also after the more usual parallel between the personal and the political, but in Germany, just before it was reunited, the parallel was on everyone’s mind and ordinary actions did take on symbolic import. Remember the Mauerspringer, the account of the sole West German who kept jumping the Wall over to East Berlin? Remember that Germany remained virtually the only Western country where old-fashioned anarchist Leftists of the Baader-Meinhof sort quite regularly shot politicians and bank presidents?
The plot of this book is about rather amateurish terrorism. Daphne is bored by her ultra-conservative parents and picks over what friends say to her; she is ever on the look-out for hidden, coded insults: ‘The wrongs done to her and the revenge she would take ruled her thoughts. She thought on revenge as other girls planned their weddings.’ She joins the secret organisation to which her lover Mario, an escaped East German, belongs. They destroy several ‘bourgeois’ clubs and establishments – until Daphne realises with horror that the sleek café they’ve just littered with pig shit and offal is one that belongs to oppressed but enterprising Turks.
Friedrich also has his schemes. He decides he can bilk Mr Picker out of a lot of money by going along with his idea that everyone in East Berlin should be given free tabs of fun drugs – though the pills Friedrich deals him are merely cheap paracetamol and Friedrich plans to pocket the money himself. Picker is convinced that once the Communist East discovers pleasure through drugs the Wall will collapse. His goal is a hedonistic revolution.
The tone in this book wanders in and out of focus, but again and again I had the feeling that such fluidity was half the point. Perhaps it is needed to cast a loose, baggy net around the weirdly assorted particulars of contemporary Germany. Or of contemporary psychology, no matter where it might find itself. In Kitchen Venom, Hensher’s controversial novel about London and Parliament, the narrator declares: ‘Look, reader, at this man; this good man, filled with his bad acts.’
When the writing in Pleasured is at its best it is consecrated to the dour poetry of the East, its pathetic gay bars, its ugly housing blocks, especially its grandiose monuments:
The Soviet Memorial was set down with brutal massiveness in the Treptower Park. The perfect immaculate blankness of the space, set around with thirty great thick blank sheets of white stone, recording the triumph of Soviet armies, had its own beauty; the double fold of stone opening, like a vast voluptuous hard velvet curtain, before the theatre of the space, had its own pressing overpowering beauty; and the two kneeling heavily cloaked steel soldiers, the colossal steel blond striding forward from his pedestal into his colossal blond future had a loveliness it was hard, quite, to look at.
The book works less well when it careens into a high-pitched, very English queeniness that is funny, sort of, in a queasy-making way, but not particularly apt. A West German fag named Pierre asks: ‘But can you imagine anything more frightful than choosing to be a frightful spotty homosexual and wear horrible plastic clothes and live in the German Democratic Republic?’ When someone points out that no one chooses anything in the GDR, Pierre responds: ‘But what I can’t understand is why they don’t run up their own outfits. Or wear those nice navy blue party uniforms, terribly elegant, really, and so flattering. But they all wear these revolting stonewashed jeans, all of them with the same sort of bagginess around the hips, as if they had nappies on underneath.’ Pierre also tells us he can’t bear black people: ‘Can’t bear the cooking smells they make or the languages they talk or the way they are always going on about being black, all day long, Yak yak yak. And so loud. Don’t you agree?’
As though in penance for such highflying offensiveness, which sounds to my ears more English than German, more Mayfair than Charlottenburg, the narrator quickly returns to his grey prose, so halting and splintered that it’s almost experimental. ‘The fretted city, snapping at itself in queues, in trains, put up with the dark days without knowing, entirely, the simple thing they were putting up with; finding causes for rage in ticket machines, in telephone bills, in anything except the sky, because against the skies, there was no point, none at all, in raging.’
I mentioned earlier that this book resisted giving a message until the end, but when at last it does become didactic the lesson is well earned and quite interesting. Hensher’s main point is that Germany works because the West craves the supposed innocence of the East but paradoxically expects the East to be grateful for all the corrupting wealth being handed over to it as the reward for reuniting. It was a scheme that made most sense before it was implemented. As Picker puts it: ‘You’re right about the East. A solution has gone. But it will be back, because we need a solution so much, we need the opposite of what we want, so that we can live our lives.’ This idea – which Kurt Vonnegut suggested so many years ago in Cut’s Cradle, his book about an island divided into two warring countries by its leaders, who recognise that their people need the idea of an opposition – is as profound as it is familiar. Indeed, if it is so familiar that is only because it is true.?