The Blurb On The Back:
One clear ice-cold January morning shortly after dawn, a wolf crosses the border between Poland and Germany. His trail leads all the way to Berlin, connecting the lives of disparate individuals whose paths intersect and diverge.
On an icy motorway eighty kilometres outside the city, a fuel tanker jack-knifes and explodes. The lone wolf is glimpsed on the hard shoulder and photographed by Tomasz, a Polish construction worker who cannot survive in Germany without his girlfriend. Elisabeth and Micha run away through the snow from their home village, crossing the wolf’s tracks on their way to the city. A woman burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony. And Elisabeth’s father, a famous sculptor, observes the vast skeleton of a whale in his studio and asks: What am I doing here? And why?
Experiences and encounters flicker past with a raw, visual power, like frames in a black and white film. Those who catch sight of the wolf see their own lives reflected, and find themselves searching for a different path in a cold time.
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The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
On an ice-cold January morning a wolf crosses the Poland-Germany border and makes his way into Germany, staying in the area until mid-February.
Along the way, the wolf is seen by Tomasz (a Polish construction worker who lives in Berlin with his girlfriend Agnieszka) who takes a photo of it by the scene of a traffic accident, which brings the attention of the German media. Agnieszka works as a cleaner and is carrying out a secret affair as she seeks something more than her relationship with Tomasz offers.
Unhappy teenagers Elisabeth and Micha cross paths with the wolf as they run away from the small village of Sauen to Berlin after Elisabeth is assaulted by her mother. They are pursued by Micha’s father (an alcoholic recently released from a health facility after a breakdown) and Elisabeth’s mother (a failed artist angry at her lost opportunities).
Jacky and Charly run a failing kiosk in Berlin and read about the wolf, with Charly becoming obsessed with finding it to get a photograph. Semra is trying to make it in the newspaper industry and tells her editor that she knows about wolves, even though she doesn’t and tracks down those who have been in contact with the wolf.
Over the next few days this disparate group of people will touch on each other’s world, sending out ripples that impact on their lives …
Roland Schimmelpfennig’s literary novel (translated from German by Jamie Bulloch) is an icy affair reminiscent of the movie CRASH in that its disparate cast are drawn together by a random event but despite its clean, cool prose the story itself left me cold as the wide cast prevented me from feeling close with any specific character and the downbeat notes left me depressed, while I didn’t know enough about Germany to comprehend the allegory.
The wide cast means that many of the characters are left underdrawn or only real seen through sketched terms (e.g. Semra who seems to exist more to tick a diversity box than to fulfil any real purpose for the plot). Tomasz and Elisabeth’s mother were, for me, the most layered characters – Tomasz because of the way his relationship with Agnieszka is breaking down and he’s been worn down by his time in Germany and Elisabeth’s mother because of the details that come through of her background in East Germany, her frustrated attempts to become an artist and her fractious relationship with Elisabeth’s more successful artist father and new wife. However neither story really gets a resolution and I was left frustrated by the lack of consideration as to why Elisabeth’s mother takes her frustration out on her daughter.
The prose is very stripped down, which I liked – and I think that Bulloch does a good job with the translation – but it can also be quite cold and alienating at times. I think that the wolf was supposed to be symbolic of something but I wasn’t quite sure of what (and it could equally be the case that the wolf was there to show a random event that ripples across people’s lives).
The story itself is very downbeat. Everyone is beaten down in some way by their lives or entering a point of crisis, e.g. Micha’s father who is battling a need to have a drink (even though he knows it could kill him) with a desire to find his son, Charly who thinks that finding and photographing (or killing) the wolf will help bring back his pride and masculinity, and to be honest I think that’s part of the reason why I found it difficult to engage with it. Saying that, Schimmelpfennig does inject scenes of tension (e.g. when Elisabeth and Micha find themselves in the company of a bar owner who tells different stories about his life) and sadness (e.g. the elderly couple who live in an apartment block that Tomasz is renovating and are clearly suffering from dementia and neglect).
Ultimately, this is a well written book but I just couldn’t engage with it enough to actually enjoy it – although it hasn’t put me off checking out Schimmelpfennig’s other work.
ONE CLEAR ICE-COLD JANUARY MORNING AT THE BEGINNING OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY was released in the United Kingdom on 5thApril 2018. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.