One of the most enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had of late comes from a short book with a ridiculously long title – One Clear, Ice-Cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century by Roland Schimmelpfennig.
The premise is a simple one – during a snow storm on the Polish-German border, a wolf is spotted heading towards Berlin. A motorist stranded in traffic takes a photo that soon goes viral. Written in a clear precise prose, reminiscent of Raymond Carver, the narrative is a patchwork of interlocking stories, the lives of characters who have seen or hear about the wolf. This excerpt from a scene with a minor character shows the power of the narrative:
It was three o’clock in the morning when the woman on the balcony in Lychener Strasse stopped burning her mother’s diaries. She was standing in her coat and scarf on the balcony of her apartment. The two children hadn’t come back.
Then, down below, where Lychener Strasse ended abruptly with a fence, she saw a large dog, or as it seemed to her, a wolf.
Wolves in literature have had a mixed-treatment. In children’s tales, they represent evilness, consume children and grandmothers and where they are anthropomorphised, they are cunning. In other literary forms, such as Native American stories, wolves are seen as guardians, known for their loyalty to the humans, but who are ultimately savage and best kept at a distance. These characteristics have given wolves a cult status, emerging in kitsch posters and tattoos.
In Schimmelpfennig’s novel, which is more about people than wolves, the wolf is a solitary figure who comes into scenes of people’s lives, often at turning-points, touches them briefly and moves on. Is he a guardian? Or something that makes these characters think outside of themselves? At times, he is a camera lens of sorts, a narrator without a voice, taking the reader into the part of the story we need to discover next.
While the filmic structure of the storytelling and the appearance of the wolf lend themselves to parables, and indeed make this an enjoyable read, there is something deeper going on. That rests in the honesty of the narrator and the nature of the stories themselves – immigrants, runaways, characters broken by relationships and alcohol. To say more risks being a spoiler. I honour this short gem of a book with a short review.