One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Jamie Bulloch (translator)

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One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Jamie Bulloch (translator)

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: While the bravura attempt at multiple story strands combining in various fashions is not quite seen out, the intent of this book is something more arty than such mere cleverness. Either way, what is here is definitely on the memorable side.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: April 2018
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857057013

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First, forgive me if I don't refer to this book with its full title often. It's pointedly precise, accurate, and rather ungainly – when in fact the book it describes has only the former two attributes in any quantity. What happens in January is that a wild wolf walks across the frozen river separating Poland and eastern Germany. Which means that, when the book starts properly, mid-February, it has had time to get a lot closer to Berlin – within 80 kilometres, to be precise, for that is the road marker where one of our main characters sees it. He is trying to get back to work in Berlin for the first time in a month, and to be with his girlfriend, not knowing she has had an infidelity while he was away. Also fancying the bright lights and big city are a teenaged pair of love-birds, the boy and girl next door to each other in an eastern village, who flee an unhappy lot on the off-chance of a better one. You just know there is a chance that these characters – human and lupine alike – are sucked into one combined narrative, but you won't know quite what that will entail…

This, then, is where I refute the impression the book is ungainly. Yes, it has a lot going on, with multiple story strands – I've not mentioned a half of the main cast list, let alone the more unusual cameos, and they all have their own timeline, all going past each other at different rates, but with writing this good you can keep track of them all. I think this debut novel, from someone who is apparently a very noted playwright, deliberately circles around, repeating details for you to catch up, and fragmenting stories into multiple shards. Even on a smaller scale, in what would be simple conversation, human communication is going around on itself, like one of those page-loading symbols online. He will tell her about subject A, she will reply asking about subject B, he will carry on talking about subject A as he hadn't said all he needed to say, and will only eventually get around to subject B in his own sweet time a couple of lines lower down.

That's not given with the intention of putting anyone off, for this is a bright, clear, fog-free morning, as the title suggests. I said it was an accurate read, and in aiming at covering so much ground, and so many people, it does remarkably well. The many threads make for multiple, very short chapters, and I can't see the audiobook of this exceeding four hours. As regards character, for instance, the young lovers are neither too naive nor too bullishly gutsy. Any one of the separate threads appeals, and in combination they're quite remarkable, with some really memorable scenes. But that said, it's where I have to suggest that while the book had some precision, for me it didn't have enough.

The publishers are calling it a contemporary fable, and yes the wolf strides through the pages, not with a great deal of purpose or agency, but with an obvious effect on the people who hear about it and indeed see it. It's writ very large that it aims, somehow, for the more liminal areas of Berlin – those areas where one section of town is cut off from the others by large infrastructure factors, like railway sidings, or where the Wall used to stand. But I felt the book was trying to say something about those places – it certainly seems to pin its locations down with GPS-like accuracy, so often does it refer to place names only Berliners would have heard of – and about the people living in those places, and their society, and I didn't come out of this book knowing quite what that was.

For one thing, there is a lot of schnapps on these pages, and it's an alcoholically-charged world we're in. But there seems to be no authorial verdict on that. You can make what you will of the influx of characters into Berlin – and in the past, the worried parents to our Romeo und Julietta have in fact gone the other way, for different reasons – but I'd rather the author stamped out what he intended me to make of it. In the end, however deft the weaving, the carpet of this plot ended with all the stray threads, with the pattern evidently incomplete, and while nothing is in danger of unravelling, it's an offcut and not a full piece of flooring.

All that said, I still feel it's worth giving this book four stars. I have to say, that may be tempered by me liking Berlin, and I've been on the autobahn where the book starts, and crossed the Oder myself – just not walking over ice. If you think back to the recent Dunkirk movie, you have three stories that have to meet, but start at different times so run past each other at their own pace, and that caused a problem for some. Here the same applies, but the number is more like seven, and I really felt it worked. Perhaps the ultimate flaw is that I liked the characters all so much I wanted more closure for them. I am also highlighting minor flaws, for want of anything like a major one. I'll certainly remember scenes from this book for a long time.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The House with the Stained-Glass Window by Zanna Sloniowska and Antonia Lloyd-Jones (translator) is in the same series as this book – it has a slightly similar theme and feel, and is more immediately post-Soviet.

Buy One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Jamie Bulloch (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Jamie Bulloch (translator) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Jamie Bulloch (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy One Clear Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig and Jamie Bulloch (translator) at Amazon.com.

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