Book Review - One Clear, Ice Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century

One morning, at the turn of the millennium, a wolf crosses the border between Poland and Germany and disappears into a forest. The following month, 80 kilometres from Berlin, a fuel tanker jack-knives and explodes causing a long tailback. The rescue attempts are hampered by snow. Stuck in his car, Tomasz, a Polish builder, is surprised to see a wolf standing at the edge of the motorway which he manages to photograph before it vanishes. Tomasz is returning to his partner, Agnieszka, a cleaner based in Berlin. Like so many migrant workers, they toil all the time, surviving ‘on crisps and coke and biscuits and tea and beer, because they didn’t like the food in Germany and because they had no time to cook.’

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s impressive debut novel is peopled by a diverse array of characters whose paths meet, overlap and diverge. Elisabeth, a teenager, tired of her mother’s beatings, decides to run away with her best friend Micha.

‘Let’s get away from here, she said to her boyfriend.

The two of them were wearing heavy leather jackets, combat boots, chains, earrings, but they had soft faces and light bodies.

Where do you want to go? He said.

Berlin, she said.’

They head into the forest where a man sits in a hide with his gun and waits for the wolf to appear. Micha’s father, a depressed alcoholic, decides to give chase and bring the teenagers home but he is worried that he won’t remain sober and will lose himself: ‘With drinkers there were no mistakes. With drinkers you could merely shift time, every one of them caved in again sooner or later.’ Elisabeth’s disappointed mother, a frustrated artist, reluctantly travels to Berlin and ends up confronting her past, the choices she made and the husband who left her. After falling pregnant her career had abruptly ended. ‘She couldn’t understand why interest in her work had waned. Then she began to blame it on her husband’s success. She accused him of doing nothing for her.’

The wolf links the lives of these disparate individuals. No wolf has been seen in the region since 1843 and as it approaches Berlin, panic sets in. Tomasz’s photograph of the wolf is reproduced worldwide. Charly, who owns a kiosk with Jacky, becomes obsessed with tracking down the predator. Meanwhile, minor characters step in and out of the story. A woman burns her mother’s diaries on a Berlin balcony; Elisabeth’s father, a famous sculptor, constructs a vast skeleton of a whale in his studio; Semra, a newspaper intern, Berlin-born with a Turkish background, seizes the opportunity to cover the story by claiming to know about wolves. Schimmelpfennig’s characters are, for the most part, disconnected from their surroundings and from one other, disillusioned and lonely.

Schimmelpfennig is best known as a playwright. This is clear in the construction and narrative pace of his novel, deftly translated by Jamie Bulloch. Interior monologues abound and the hopes and fears of his characters are revealed in simple, concise language:

Tomasz worked that morning as if it was any other. He didn’t say much, but he talked a great deal inside his head. He talked to his mother and Agnieszka’s mother and Agnieszka’s brother and Agnieszka.

He tried to remain calm, but couldn’t manage it.

He realised he wouldn’t be able to make it through the next days alone. He wouldn’t cope with being alone. He felt scared.’

The prose often reads like a series of stage directions: ‘The bus driver had stopped, and when he didn’t see the girl and the boy he waited for a moment, at just after half past six in the morning at the only bus stop in the village. He waited longer than he ought to … Later that morning he’d called the boy’s mother and asked her whether everything was alright, that’s what you do in the country.’

However, some of the theatrical elements weaken the plot. While a large cast is exhilarating to see on stage, a heavily peopled novella can feel like too many character sketches. The absence of names – “the boy’s father” and “the girl’s mother” – serves to distance the reader and makes it harder for us to feel empathy. Initially, the numerous subplots dilute tension and Schimmelpfennig has a tendency to tell, rather than show, what his characters are feeling. Our interest is pulled in too many directions, our loyalties are divided and consequently we don’t know who to really root for.

Gradually, though, Schimmelpfennig ratchets up the tension for his lead characters. During one of Tomasz’s absences in Poland, Agnieszka begins an affair with Andi, a man she meets in a Berlin club, and weeks later realises she is pregnant. Elisabeth risks being exploited by a mysterious Chilean bar owner who might be Romanian. The boy’s father is increasingly alienated, but knows if he gives in to alcohol, it may be his last drink: ‘The last thing he wanted was to go home, but where should he go? He’d lost the trail. He had no goal. He was cold. He sat on a bench on the station concourse. He felt as if people were staring at him, but maybe he was just imagining it. He could hear the drunken chatter of the men and women in the pub, but he couldn’t understand what they were saying.’

Meanwhile the threat of the wolf’s arrival in Berlin hangs over them all and there is a dreamlike quality to the random encounters. The woman burning her mother’s diaries offers Elisabeth and Micha a room for the night. The boy’s father spends a Schnapps-soaked night with his older brother, refuelling at Charly’s kiosk. The final word and sighting of the wolf is given to a linesman on the S-Bahn, a friend of Micha’s who we don’t actually meet until the closing chapter. Berlin may be considered one of the best cities in the world to live today, but Schimmelpfennig’s memorable tale of urban dislocation reveals a darker side.

Originally published by Riveting Reviews,