An early contender for Best Book Title of 2018, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s debut novel explores a Europe in a state of flux, one where boundaries and nationalities, transients and refugees, fight for their place on an increasingly hostile continent. With frequent references to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a moment in history that appeared to signal a European renaissance and optimism for the future, the novel is both experimental in structure and playful in nature leading to a highly original and often hypnotic work.
Opening with an image of a wolf crossing “the frozen river marking the border between Germany and Poland”, the novel immediately takes a dramatic turn with a 60-car pile-up on a motorway that leaves one of the characters, Tomasz, stuck for almost 24 hours in a freezing car while his girlfriend, Agnieszka, a cleaner in Berlin, waits for him in their apartment. Taking a walk up the road to observe the work of the emergency services, Tomasz comes face to face with the wolf, taking a stunning photograph that goes on to be reprinted in newspapers across the country and soon becomes a popular topic of conversation. Was it real or just an elaborate hoax?
The action switches between different stories and perspectives, from Tomasz and Agnieszka to an unnamed teenaged couple who are running away from home together, and from the parents of those young people to a couple of shop owners. There’s also the dead body of a hunter lying in the snow to which the narrative frequently returns. Everyone exists in a state of exhausted resignation at the difficulties of their lives, contemplating their poverty, alcoholism or regrets, and there’s a sense that, like for the wolf, survival is all that matters.
Throughout it all, there are frequent sightings of the animal, which seems to be making its way towards Berlin too. The more it is witnessed, the more mythological it becomes, leading some to doubt its very existence. It’s not always clear the purpose the wolf serves in the novel, other than joining these disparate lives together, but perhaps in its endless journeying it stands as a metaphor for those who are travelling from the poorer countries in the east to one of the commercial capitals of Europe. Although, as we see from the exhausting work undertaken by the Polish couple, Tomasz and Agnieszka, there is no guarantee of a better life in the west.
Schimmelpfennig writes in a simple, clean style, constructing short chapters that follow the progression of narratives that rarely intersect. Europe, at the start of the 21st century, feels like an inhospitable place for those who have been born into less fortunate circumstances and, particularly in the case of the boy and girl, everyone keeps moving on in the vague hope that they will eventually find a home. For the teenagers, however, any encounter with someone who displays generosity or hospitality towards them leads to an underlying suspicion concerning the adults’ motives. Even the most sympathetic characters, the young Polish couple who have been together since their early teens, are driven apart by her infidelity and subsequent pregnancy and Tomasz barely has time to contemplate the betrayal, so immersed is he in the drudgery of his working life.
Journey of an animal
Ten years ago, the somewhat mysterious British writer Joseph Smith published a novella called The Wolf, which followed the journey of an animal through a forest, seeking food to stay alive while at the same time doing all it could to escape a predator. It, too, was a spellbinding work that gave no quarter to established literary norms, taking the reader inside the mind of an animal to great effect, a conceit he repeated in his second novel, Taurus, which featured a bull. Challenging the rules of narrative and character led to a pair of extraordinary novels and it's possible that Schimmelpfennig has taken some inspiration from these as there are parallels between these books and the use of an animal's relationship to the natural terrain to tell a story of dislocated communities.
One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning is a peculiar and innovative work, exactly the type of book that readers in search of striking European voices should embrace, particularly in these times when the continent itself is, once again, at risk of being torn apart.
John Boyne’s latest novel is The Heart’s Invisible Furies (Doubleday)