A novel with a rather long title…

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

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

The worst thing about this book is its 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, more 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, 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, and separately their parents – hers both estranged artists, his father a suicidal alcoholic. There are newsagents Jacky and Charly – 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.  There is a young journalist 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 rocky. The boy’s father’s story is also heart-wrenching. All of the characters are dysfunctional and lonely in Berlin in their way.

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 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. (8.5/10)

Again, don’t just take my word for it, see what Susan thinks too at A Life in Books.


Source: Review copy.

Roland Schimmelpfennig, One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning… (Maclehose, April 2018), paperback original, 240 pages.

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7 thoughts on “A novel with a rather long title…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      The title did attract me (or was it the wolf on the cover)? I’d have called it something along the lines of A Wolf Goes West, or stopped after January. It was an excellent read though.

  1. Thanks for the link, Annabel. Appropriately enough, I’m commenting from Germany – Leipzig rather than Berlin – and am on my way to Poland. I think you’re right: the wolf’s journey would make a great film.

  2. I’m confused: the title of your post has “Twentieth Century” but the book cover says “Twenty-first Century.” Traffic jams and Toyotas make me think it’s the more recent date.

    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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