One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (pbk)

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

Reviewed by Annabel

The only questionable thing about this superb book is its somewhat cumbersome title – which is actually the beginning of the novel’s first sentence, which continues thus:

…just after daybreak, a solitary wolf crossed the frozen river marking the border between Germany and Poland.

And yes, the wolf who appears on the front cover, approaching the skyline of Berlin is significant, but more about him later.

Schimmelpfennig is one of Germany’s foremost playwrights, and this is his first novel. While I wouldn’t say that the novel has a theatrical feel, there is a dramatic, rather cinematic sense to it; I could imagine it clearly on screen.  The story is told in vignette form – the chapters are all short, at most a few pages, often less than one. They allow Schimmelpfennig to weave a narrative of many different strands into the fabric of the novel. Each one features different characters and the threads loop around each other, occasionally intersecting, then moving away again. The wolf wanders through all the strands, coming out of the Eastern European forests, moving west where no wolf has been seen since 1843 and heading, it seems, like all the others, for Berlin.

Each vignette is a snapshot of the lives of the many characters. It begins, after that initial sentence with the first spotting of the wolf’s tracks by a hunter.  Then we move to the motorway between Poland and Berlin. Tomasz, a builder, is stuck in the jam behind a major accident. It’s freezing cold, but he needs to get his sleeping bag from the boot.

The lock on the Toyota’s boot was frozen. To his right stood the sign: eighty kilometres to Berlin.
Then he saw the wolf. The wolf was standing in front of the sign at the side of the snowy motorway, seven metres in front of him, no more.
A wolf, Tomasz thought, that looks like a wolf, it’s probably a large dog, who would let their dog roam around here, or is it really a wolf?
He took a photo of the animal in front of the sign in the driving snow. The flash in the darkness.
A moment later the wolf had vanished.

Other strands feature a pair of runaway teenagers Elisabeth and Mischa, and separately, their parents – hers both estranged artists, his father a suicidal alcoholic. Jacky and Charly run a newspaper kiosk – and once Tomasz’s photo of the wolf makes it into the world, Charly is obsessed with it, wanting to be the man to kill it. Another hunter is out in the forests too, but so is the wolf and a young journalist is covering the wolf story. Then there is Agnieszka, Tomasz’s girlfriend and her brother who works with Tomasz. I particularly felt for Tomasz, who doesn’t want to be in Germany, but needs the money. He and Agnieszka are working so hard, building, cleaning, their relationship is increasingly rocky. The boy’s father’s story is also heart-wrenching. All of the characters are dysfunctional and lonely in Berlin in their own ways, caught in this snapshot of the post-unification German capital.

The city of Berlin is the quiet co-star, seen in glimpses, mainly through its transport networks linking neighbourhoods and the apartment blocks where the characters have their lives. Everyone has their own reasons for converging on Berlin.  Not everyone sees the wolf, but thanks to Tomasz’s photo having gone viral, they all know it is coming. But what or who is it coming for?  Is it coming for them?

This is a dreamy, impressionistic and slightly slowburn novel despite its brevity. Jame Bulloch’s translation captures the wintery mood perfectly, and Schimmelpfennig leaves much left unsaid between the lines. I rather enjoyed it. 

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Roland Schimmelpfennig, One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, trans Jamie Bulloch (MacLeHose, 2019). 978-0857056979, 240pp., paperback. (Source: review copy – thank you).

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