Characters orbiting the past

Dark Satellites
By Clemens Meyer
221 pp. Fitzcarraldo Editions. $18.

I must confess — I do judge books by the cover. I don’t see how you can’t, really. A cover can tell you so much about a book.

You know exactly what you’re getting if the cover shows a shirtless man, the head of the woman in his arms thrown back in seeming ecstasy.

Italians refer to mystery novels as I libri gialli (yellow books) because mysteries there have long been identified by their yellow covers and spines.

When I learned via an article in the New Yorker some years back that Peter Mendelsund, a professional cover artist, was designing a series of covers for new editions of several Italo Calvino classics, I just had to have them, despite the fact that I had many of the same titles already.

I just love a book with a good cover.

Which brings me to the UK publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions. There is no cover art for the books they release. Non-fiction books receive an all white cover, while novels and short story collections receive an all blue cover.

I absolutely love this, not just because deep, solid blue and solid off white make for lovely covers, but because they reveal nothing about the story. I don’t know what I’m getting into when I get a book in the mail from Fitzcarraldo Editions and that sense of the unexpected, especially in a day and age when surprises are so few and far between, is something I revel in.

The only thing left to decipher then, without opening the book or reading the jacket, is the title — the other thing I unapologetically judge books by.

“Dark Satellites” is a somewhat cryptic title in itself. Is it referring to satellites that orbit the earth? To satellite cities?

Most, if not all, of these stories take place in post-USSR East Germany. The exact setting of these stories is never disclosed, or if they were, I certainly missed it.

“Dark Satellites” is riven with echoes of other authors. The way the author, Clemens Meyer, plays with memory couldn’t help but evoke W.G. Sebald, and certain stories, particularly “The Beach Railway’s Last Run” brought to my mind the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig.

A sort of languid melancholy pervades many of these stories, several of which feature or take place in dilapidated Soviet-style apartment buildings. I saw nothing bright when visualizing these settings and characters, no greens or yellows, no light blues. Instead, the entire collection is muted, set in somber, dark tones of concrete and eternally overcast skies.

The great Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski would be my choice to helm an adaptation of this collection. His unforgettable series of ten films based on the Ten Commandments, each an hour long, each set in the same Warsaw apartment building, each drained of color, felt closely related to many of the stories in this collection.

Here Meyer has turned his eye to the new Germany, and the present does not appear bright. Meyer’s stories feature characters who are all stuck in the past, who are all — old and young alike — living at the end of their days. The future doesn’t exist and the present is as cloudy and unclear as the East German sky on a winter’s day.

All these characters have is the past. They live on the outskirts of life, in their “Dark Satellites”, slowly orbiting around strangers who, without warning, spark some memory inside of them. They don’t feel. They just sometimes remember what it had been like to feel.

All of these stories made me feel. Some more than others. The title story was my favorite of the collection, a man’s memory of a love affair with the wife of his conservative Muslim neighbor. The aforementioned

“The Beach Railway’s Last Run” was another favorite. That story, set in the waning days of World War II, felt like it was set somewhere else, in a part of Germany the darkness had not yet reached.

In “The Distance”, a train driver hits a man on the tracks and he’s sent backwards, as all the characters in these stories are, to wonder about the life of the man he struck, and in the process examines his own.

Trains run through many of these stories, a potent contrast to characters who don’t feel like they’re going anywhere. They’re well aware that Germany has changed, that it’s changing still, but they’re immobile all the same.

They’re stuck in a permanent state of present uncertainty, while their minds are turned to the romanticized past.

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