One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): A wolf takes a walk

Cover image Impossible not to comment on that title which makes the old bookseller in me wonder just how much it will be mangled in customer enquiries. I’m sure the publishers breathed a sigh of relief that Twitter have extended their 140-character limit, too. That said, it was the title which attracted me to this novella along with its setting largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities. It’s also translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is renowned German playwright, Roland Schimmelpfennig’s first novel. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany.

Coming out of the east, the wolf turns west into a forest where no wolf has been seen since 1843, crossing many people’s paths as it moves closer and closer to Berlin. Caught up in a traffic jam on his way back from Poland to his Berlin flat, Tomasz snaps the wolf on his phone, a shot which will later seize the media by storm. Elisabeth and Micha, two runaways from close to the border, spot the wolf’s tracks deep in the forest. Charly who runs a kiosk with his partner in an up and coming area of Berlin becomes haunted by his faceout with the wolf. A woman, intent on burning her dead mother’s diaries, spots it in the distance. The whole of Berlin falls under its spell, obsessed with this interloper who inspires both fear and wonder. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one.

This is such a clever, beautifully structured novella which seems to me to hold a mirror up to the reunified Germany through the stories of the characters whose path the wolf crosses. Tomasz is an economic migrant, uncomfortable in Berlin and longing for home; the ageing remaining occupants of the apartment block he’s helping to gentrify in the old east Berlin are determined not to be ousted; Elisabeth’s mother bitterly resents her ex-husband for thwarting her artistic career while Micha’s father has taken to drink in the face of economic decline. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is pared-back and spare, cinematic in its images and complemented by the fragmented structure of this novella in which deftly handled coincidences abound. It’s a triumph – both absorbing and thought-provoking. I’d suggest putting aside any difficultly stumbling over that title in your local bookshop and grabbing yourself a copy.

20 thoughts on “One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): A wolf takes a walk”

  1. Berlin is one of my favourite cities, too, though I doubt I’ll visit there so often now that family who used to live there have moved on (south to warmer climate). This sounds an intriguing novel, and the cover’s pretty good, too. I know German vocabulary favours enormously long compounds, but to make such a meal of the title is a bit much! Distinctive, though.

  2. Couldn’t resist – looked it up “An einem klaren, eiskalten Januarmorgen zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts” – not as long as you think (although it should be einundzwanzigster to match the English). Must read this soon – I have a copy.

  3. I’m such a fan of novellas these days and this sounds wonderful. I like the premise and it sounds like its got something to say – proof that writing doesn’t need to go on at length to be meaningful or beautiful!

  4. Yours is the second review I’ve read and its definitely creeping up my ‘must buy’ list. I am struggling to think of a book I own with a longer title though!

  5. Pingback: A novel with a rather long title... - Annabookbel

  6. That reminds me a little of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The Visitation, except it was a house that connected the different characters and even Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living connecting characters through the heart of a young man. Intriguing, I love the idea of a lone wolf being the catalyst.

    1. The wolf device worked beautifully, Claire. I loved The Visitation, such a clever way to explore a country’s history. Not yet read Mend the Living but I remember being impressed by Birth of a Bridge.

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