Book Review: One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the 21st Century

I was attracted by this book as much as a result of its eye-catching title – a translation in English (as in the original German: An einem klaren, eiskalten Januarmorgen zu Beginn des 21 Jahrhunderts) of the opening line – as its location in contemporary European, as opposed to distinctly UK, literature.

Roland Schimmelpfennig, the prolific playwright (and former journalist), is a man used to commenting on the populism of these times and on the need for liberals to exercise the muscles required to call out zombie fascism when we come across it, an act which is apparently difficult to do even when it comes, disguised, knocking on our doors at Christmas. This is his first novel, but it continues the theme of much of his work, inspired by the rise of the AfD in Germany as much as by its populist counterparts that we can find both in the UK and, unfortunately, in several other European countries.

The title depicts a single act taking place in the depths of a particularly hard winter at the beginning of this century (thus some sixteen or so years prior to the novel’s original publication) when a lone wolf is able to cross a frozen river marking the border between Germany and Poland. A short while later, the wolf is photographed somewhere close to Berlin and, when the photograph is published, the remarkability of its existence – the first wild wolf to be seen at least in this part of Germany in over 160 years – acts to spread its fame. As the wolf continues its, substantially unseen, journey towards and into the capital of modern Germany, Schimmelpfennig’s characters interact with its presence and its absence in ways that are both predictable, charming and naive.

The symbolism is clear – as well it ought to be, as this is more or less entirely a symbolic work. The wolf is alone, it has ‘crossed’ from Poland (not forgetting that east Germany lay on its route ‘westwards’, as the author is well aware), not that freedom of movement has any significance for wild animals, and it is potentially symbolic of the re-wilding initiative that sees, for example, the desirability of the re-introduction of the lynx and, indeed, the wolf, into Scotland (although there are no official plans yet to do so). The ‘lone wolf’ as a leitmotif of an outsider, and not of ourselves, and therefore something possessed of great power but thus to be feared, rejected and destroyed, needs also to be observed.

Schimmelpfennig’s telling is, as we might expect from a playwright, big screen and cinematic. The chapters are short and episodic – sometimes less than one page and very rarely more than three – and the approach is broad brush though not, we should note, at the expense of detail although it does require the reader to pay attention. The cast of characters is sizable and, inevitably, not least as a result of the brevity of the work, some are drawn more fully rounded than others although few are unrealised and a higher profile work may well experience a clamour of A-list actors interested in reading it. It is also quite clearly a paean to modern, multi-cultural Berlin – where Schimmelpfennig is resident – with the city and its ever-changing streets, bars and personalities emerging as an actor, albeit a passive one, in the development of the tale.

Ultimately, the moral is really quite clear: that the atomised, individualised lives that we lead in a modern urban environment lead us frequently into an isolated, vulnerable existence akin to that of a lone wolf: that we are so focused on living our own lives that we forget how to live as part of a pack and that the rules of living become much less collectively-oriented and much more based on the rule of the jungle. Where Schimmelpfennig’s characters do interact with each other, it is most commonly with outcomes that are benign, albeit loaded with potential for misunderstandings and for a lack of mutual comprehension. That is the price of how we choose to live alongside others that we do not know and who, it seems, we frequently do not want to get to know. Where, essentially therefore, capitalism is indeed red in tooth and claw, it is as much our own fault as a result of our inability to recognise the strengths that we have when we act as part of a collective. Multi-culturalism doesn’t undermine that, but it does require us all to recognise that the working class, whatever the boundaries imposed either by border or by art, with many of Schimmelpfennig’s characters being artists, has more to unite it than divide it. It does, of course, make such lessons more difficult to realise, but that ought not, in principle, to ask too much of 21st century humans brought up on the lessons of the destructive horrors of the 20th century.

That the book has a slightly retrospective outlook, being set more than a decade prior to the events it describes, adds to its moral of the lessons that we need again to re-learn if we are once more to be not subjects of an economic system but sovereign over it; in control of our history and of our destiny, not captured by one or both of these.

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From the croft: Easter Sunday 2019

From aquamarine to turquoise to deep sea blue, here’s Good Friday’s sparkling colours of the sea looking north at low tide:

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Today, however, the mist has descended and we’re back to a uniform overcast dullness of greys.

In other wildlife news this Easter Sunday:

* our gang of starlings continue nest building and repairing in earnest, though the pair in the prime starling estate in the chimney pots of the adjacent (and empty) cottage has certainly been harrassed, if not predated, by the ravens

* a pair of pied wagtails continue scouting for a nest site in the stonework of the old byre and other ruins

* we have had a male blackcap visitor (which I’ve tried to encourage, with some success, by rolling an apple under the central ring of daffodils)

* five black-tailed godwits (2M, 3F) were on the shore yesterday, presumably on a pitstop before continuing off to their breeding territories on Iceland and the Faeroes

* formerly part of a pair, but now alone, a single brent goose has been making a daily appearance around teatime at high tide, having presumably got detached from the migrating family group

* last year’s Easter bunny made a brief re-appearance on the immediately neighbouring croft on Thursday (OK, it may not be the same one)

* both the female but also the male hen harriers continue to drive the waders into a panic, despite rarely being that interested in them, with, on one occasion this week, a small wader in hot pursuit, successfully driving the female up and over the nest sites

* the shelducks have paired up, with the male getting a bit feisty with the mallards, while groups of eider are also starting to form

* the neighbours’ sheep have started to give birth, the first few in the good weather of the last week with most, it seems, typically hanging on for the poorer weather to come in the next

* a large, presumably dog, otter crossed the road in front of us at Baile Garbhaidh on our road back from Barra yesterday, from the seaside of Loch Bi to the loch itself, briefly visible on the surface of the water before disappearing in search of a late supper, leaving only a trace of bubbles.

Meanwhile, both daylight and the grass grow longer, the yellow flag iris is getting taller and the nettles are starting to grow – perfect cover for the corncrakes on their ungainly, ever-unlikely return from Africa. They’ll be back, soon enough.

In the meantime, Happy Easter one and all.

24 hours in Brussels

I had a quick trip to Brussels last week immediately ahead of the European Council which offered a ‘flextension’ get-out-of-jail card on Brexit (much to the amused interest of people who I’d told where I’d been). (And which, of course, we’ve used immediately for parliament to go on recess.)

Brussels is a place I’ve been going to more or less annually for trips, conferences and seminars, and other events, since about 1994 and I both know it reasonably well (as far as anyone can ‘know’ any city), and like it: it can hide its charms, to some degree, and these might also be somewhat idiosyncratic and easy to mock, as Channel 4’s Travel Man (coincidentally on a repeated showing on C4 Sunday afternoon) clearly uncovered without a great deal of effort. Walking down on arrival at the Gare du Nord to my hotel (yes, I know…), I met the sight of a young man openly making good, if unofficial, use of a street planter in performance art tribute to one of Brussels’s statues (maybe this one, or perhaps this one).

But the airport is well located, just fifteen minutes by train (of which there are five or six an hour) from the centre of Brussels, and without charging rip-off fares; and even the automated passport barriers work without supercilious staff suggesting I take off my glasses like I’m intentionally using them as some sort of disguise (BA/Heathrow Airport seriously take note). And how you can not like a place whose baggage hall has a jukebox:

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Unusually, I managed to get from these islands to where I wanted to be the same day (morning flight from Benbecula-Glasgow; a short wait for a flight from Glasgow-Heathrow T5; and then a slightly longer wait than flight from T5-Brussels), though the downside was that this meant this trip was one of the shortest I have ever made (little more than the aforementioned 24 hours, from late afternoon one day to just before dinner the next). I was there for the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal, with discussion of many interesting ideas, articles and innovations coming the way of our subscribers in 2019/20, but no visit to Brussels would be complete without a meal at Bij den Boer or without sampling a few beers.

24 hours either side of a busy and important meeting didn’t deliver too much opportunity for the latter. (And gentle rain in the evening, persisting more heavily right throughout the next day, didn’t encourage much in the way of trekking or, indeed, of photos.) However, I did manage to make Brasserie Omnibus, a cafe barĀ  with a train theme, my local for the duration, serving a rather good, if sweet, Tripel Le Fort (plus a welcome little dish of bar snacks); while a nearby hotel bar delivered a proper temperature Rochefort Trappist 8 (which currently makes Belgium’s top 50 beers on Rate Beer), offering plenty of chocolatey goodness; while a wander around the corner from Bij den Boer to Cafe Merlo offered some new-style small-batch craft beer via Brasserie de la Senne, whose Zinnebir (a Belgian blonde) provided citrusy dryness to the post-dinner chat with colleagues wondering what the heck was happening with Brexit (my only new observation being that the UK is – or at least was, last week – a country in a state of open revolt in search of a revolution). All beers from bottles, by the way.

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So, with a tinge of sadness – this being (possibly, who knows?) my last trip to Brussels as a ‘free’ citizen, it was a farewell to the city of Brussels with at least a hopeful au revoir/tot ziens. ‘Til next time then, comrades (if the creek don’t rise).