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.

[EDIT 11 October 2021: A local newspaper in Potsdam has reported sound evidence of nature imitating art; and the apparently natural re-wilding of a park in Brandenburg.]

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

  1. Thanks for your review. Enjoyed it, as I did the book. I do think that the wolf may also be significant in another light – exactly as an ellusive non-human creature that civilization is unable to understand, as humans seem only able to accept what they can dominant, control and/or ultimately destroy…

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    1. Thank you very much, Miriam.

      I think that’s definitely also the role of the wolf here (and also given fresh perspective by the coronavirus). The way the novel ends is somewhat problematic – I didn’t want to give too much away in my review – but the idea that its elusive journey is to deliver a clear message from nature is inescapable. Perhaps more of us will, given these times, pay better attention.

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