Liminal by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): An hallucinatory slice of Berlin noir

Cover image for Liminal by Liminal by Roland Schimmelpfennig Roland Schimmelpfennig’s clever, smartly structured One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century was one of my books of 2018. Set in Berlin’s underworld, Liminal is very different but it also explores the darker side of modern Germany, following a cop whose life has been shattered by a tragic event.

Sometimes, albeit rarely, there were evenings when I was able to remember everything, when for an hour or two I had the energy to spread out all the shards before me and inspect them as if it wasn’t my life set out there but just another case. 

Tommy is awaiting trial on corruption charges, his meteoric career halted while his dubious methods are under investigation. At a May Day rave he spots a bride floating down the canal, at first unsure whether it’s an hallucination. No one else seems to have seen it but when a bird lands on her chest, Tommy jumps in and drags her body out of the water. No one comes forward to identify this young woman, whose many scars are covered with a beautiful, watercolour-like tattoo, setting Tommy on a mission to discover her story and her identity. He’s a man who knows how to negotiate the underworld. His friendship with one of the city’s dealers both facilitated his career and brought about his downfall. Csaba had spotted a broken man and with it an opportunity. As Tommy searches the city for clues, fuelled by a cocktail of drugs, a picture emerges of a woman desperate to escape the person who thought he was protecting her, finding love, friendship and fulfilment only to lose it.

Yellow, red and blue Chinese lanterns hung between the boards, a girl in a tulle dress rode a huge rocking horse, and a woman who was a man kissed a man who was a woman as they both danced on a barrel. 

This is such an impressive, at times disconcerting novella, episodic and vividly cinematic. Tommy is a deeply troubled, complex narrator – his relationship destroyed, his friendship with Csaba no longer a solace now that he’s in jail – seeking oblivion in drugs which lend an unreliability to his narrative. His life since the accident that destroyed him has been spent in the space between one world and another, a liminal existence lived by many of the novella’s characters. Schimmelpfennig’s writing is often dreamlike, hallucinatory, so that we, like Tommy, sometimes have difficulty in knowing what’s real and what’s not. The telling of the young woman’s story in the final section is powerful and revealing but for me it was the conjuring of the world beneath Berlin’s glossy, cosmopolitan surface that particularly impressed. I’d love to see this one adapted for the big screen. In the right hands, of course, definitely not Hollywood.

MacLehose Press: London 9781529418699 192 pages Paperback

27 thoughts on “Liminal by Roland Schimmelpfennig (transl. Jamie Bulloch): An hallucinatory slice of Berlin noir”

  1. This sounds compelling. At first, your description ‘noir’ put me off, as it’s not my favourite genre. But this seems impressively multi-layered.

      1. Right. I’ll remember that. I see our library service has ‘One clear ice-cold January morning at the beginning of the 21st century’. When my current library stack has got to a more sensible height, I may reserve this one

  2. I’m raring to read this one, as it’s my kind of thing, but the original German edition is prohibitive in terms of cost. Not that I am dissing the translation, by any means, but he’s got the kind of style that I’d like to experience in the original.

  3. After you kindly liked my latest post I realised I hadn’t had any from you for a while. And you’d disappeared from my ‘following’ list! Don’t know how it happened but I’ve just subscribed again. A friend said she hadn’t seen any posts from me for a while … a WordPress problem? Anyway glad to be following you again.

  4. This sounds really good, it’s the kind of story I would be really drawn to on TV (I watch a lot of European drama/crime series. However it does sound compelling. I am currently reading another German book, set in the GDR just before the wall was built. It’s fascinating.

    1. This one would make a great movie but not done by Netflix! What’s the book? I’m very interested in fiction set during that period, particularly since travelling in Central and Eastern Europe.

  5. I did not know he had another one out this year, so thanks to you it is now sitting on the desk beside me, Susan. Very much looking forward to reading more of his Berlin after having re-read One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the beginning of the year.

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