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A novel of Berlin (‘one to watch for 2018’)

21st April 2018

A novel of Berlin…

One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at The Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated by Jamie Bulloch.

#coldwolf

A wolf pads across the border from Poland to Germany and lopes along motorways, railway tracks and cuttings, across the snow-bedecked countryside, seemingly headed for Berlin. He is the Leitmotiv that holds together snapshots of lives, of people who find themselves drawn to the capital city for a variety of reasons. The wolf is occasionally spotted; some want to kill him, others to capture him on film. He is a shadowy figure, much like the humans who are intrigued by his lonely sightings.

A novel of Berlin

The chapters are for the most part short and punchy. This perhaps reflects the author’s style, as he is a playwright. It is also beautifully translated by Jamie Bulloch. The book portrays a cross-section of humanity, trying to eke out a living in and around Berlin. There are many unhappy lives – loneliness and sadness are the inescapable feelings in this mucky, snowy city early one January at the beginning of the 21st Century.

As the various characters make their way around the city, we have glimpses of lives that are ordinary, yet individual. Yes, it is a parable; yes, it is also a snapshot of a city with a huge and oftentimes violent history. Just like the wolf, governed by environment, the people are themselves part of the fabric of the edgy city, moulded, influenced and ultimately subject to the whims of this capricious an colourful city. There are stark reminders of the historical division that somehow permeates the very core of life in Berlin.

The city is portrayed as linear, metallic, sliced and unforgiving. It makes a stark backdrop to the softer forms of the people whose lives we track: two young people flee an abusive mother; a lonely Polish worker struggles with his relationship; a woman is observed chopping and burning diaries on her balcony; an elderly couple has chosen to stay in an apartment block that is being renovated, and have their electricity cut… yes, it is an absorbing and at times depressing read.

The city itself comes through loud and clear. I took it with me on a recent trip to Berlin and was staying near Schönhauser Allee. Part of the book is set around that long street in the former Eastern sector and thus the book felt supremely real. I half wondered whether I would have a sighting of a wolf as I, too, made my way around the city, to Alexanderplatz, to Gesundbrunnen (the Dark Worlds and bunker tours office is there) and the shopping centre, which the characters visited. This book will offer you a really interesting perspective on this oftentimes uneasy but ultimately fascinating and beguiling city.

A novel of Berlin

I certainly found this book appealing and the publishers Maclehose Press say it is ‘one to watch for 2018’. Yes, I loved it, it has a very cinematic appeal but will it have wider appeal, I wonder?

And what of the title? I can’t really conclude without giving it a mention. It’s long and eye catching, for sure – it is in fact the first part of the opening sentence – but as a title it is also a mouthful. When people asked what I was reading, I was able to recall the odd word from the title, and would mostly evade the question and say I was reading the latest book by Roland Schimmelpfennig. I still don’t remember the full title and have to keep looking it up to get the words in the right order. It’s definitely a talking point – not sure it’s a great marketing ploy; sadly, I feel, the title may not be an asset to getting the book in front of a wider audience. Readers! I would love to hear what you think of the title, do leave your thoughts in the comments below!!

If you are going to Berlin (or, indeed, know the city well) then I recommend that you do buy this book, it will add a really perceptive and immersive dimension to your trip and offer societal insight into what you observe as you make your way around the city.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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