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

Review published on April 6, 2018.

One Clear… is an intelligent and highly entertaining literary novel. I get the sense that Schimmelpfennig had a lot of fun telling this tale, introducing many characters and their stories. It’s very different from the traditional structure of a play (he is a famous playwright in his native Germany). It’s fair to describe One Clear… as a fairy tale (a modern or urban fairy tale), but that should not lead the reader into thinking it might be old fashioned or child-like. I see it more as an allegorical tale that explores urban myths to get to the heart of real lives. It’s a sharp examination of modern life, of relationships and the paths people take in life. Fragments of stories that can be quite beautiful and encapsulating, coalesce into rounded stories lovers and families, of urban living and a vanishing rural life.

It all starts One Clear… (you can add the rest!) at the Polish-German border when a lone wolf crosses the Oder from the East. When the carcass of a dead deer is found near Vierlinden bei Seelow the presence of a wolf is suspected, the first since 1843. On the Poland to Berlin Autobahn a fuel tanker jack knives and explodes causing others to crash, the conflagration engulfs several cars and creates a huge tailback, the snow makes rescue efforts more difficult. Caught up in the tailback, 80 kilometres from Berlin, is Tomasz, returning to Agnieszka, in the city. He has been away for a month in Poland working as a builder for relatives. Without heat and nowhere near a town, Tomasz catches a fleeting glimpse of the wolf, there is enough time to photograph it before it vanishes into the woods. When Tomasz is away it is a problem for the couple, he rowed with Agnieszka over her going out with her friend to a nightclub. After he forbade it she did it anyway. She met Andi and now she thinks she is pregnant. In the town of Sauen, sixteen-year-old Elisabeth has decided that last night is the last time her mother will beat her. She is standing at the bus stop with her friend Micha waiting for the school bus when the pair decide to run away to Berlin; they trudge through the snow covered forest. A man sets a hide and waits for the wolf to appear, he doesn’t think he will shoot it but he falls ill while waiting. Micha and Elisabeth come across the dead hunter and later Micha’s father also sees the dead man as he follows the children. There are many more characters involved as the story progresses their stories intersect and collide, all in the presence of the wolf.

The prose constantly brings interesting strands of the plot to life, it’s intriguing:

“It was 3 o’clock in the morning when the woman on the balcony in Lychner Strasse stop burning her mother’s Diaries. She was standing in a coat and scarf on the small balcony of her apartment. The two children hadn’t come back.”

I can honestly say I enjoyed some passages almost is if they were very short stories in their own right.

Schimmelpfennig is a very successful German playwright but the style of this novel is very different to the long set scenes and acts of a play. He shows a real gift for writing brief passages, sometimes nothing more than a few sentences, with real charm. These intriguing vignettes but when interlock to create a whole story very effectively. The combination of stories makes a novel of modern life. The device of the wolf, that give the novel it’s fairy tale feel is also a quirky way of bringing characters together; crossing paths or interlocking parallel tales. The wolf can indicate a beginning, an end, a reflection of life or a significant change of course for a character. He is the catalyst for self examination, for people to question their lives.

If you think the title is intriguing, if somewhat long, you should know the author’s name roughly translates as ‘mouldy-coin’, a reference to a miser keeping his coin until it grows mildew. There is nothing stale or mouldy about this novel, it’s contemporary and brilliantly entertaining. As I said it has a fairy tale quality but it’s a clever dissection of modern life. The prose is powerful and simple and the over all effect beguiling and thought provoking. Exceptional translation by Jamie Bulloch.

Paul Burke 5/4

One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig
MacLehose Press 9780857057013 pbk Apr 2018

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