Books Snowleg


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by Nicholas Shakespeare

First published: Great Britain 2004

Original language: English

On his sixteenth birthday in 1977, Peter Hithersay is told by his mother that his father is not Rodney, the kind and stoically failed artist-turned-designer of wedding invitations to whom she has been married to for the past fifteen years, but a young East German dissident she met for one night when visiting Leipzig as a young girl to compete in a Bach choral festival. Peter is immediately transformed from the typical English public schoolboy he thought he had been into a German boy teased and bullied for his unpatriotic parentage when he returns to the same public school (perhaps Winchester) in the wake of this birthday revelation. The only thing he carries over from his past is a devotion to his ‘No. 1 hero’ Sir Bedevere, the last Knight of the Round Table to whom the dying King Arthur had entrusted his sword: “He loved the story and sometimes wished he might come across a dragon-threatened damsel so that he could display a courage which his surface hid.”

German Peter’s taste changes from Jim Morrison to early Sex Pistols punk, and he decides against all advice to go and study medicine in Hamburg. In his third year, he becomes the lighting electrician for a theatre group of two, and travels with them across the Iron Curtain to Leipzig, where they have been invited to perform during the week of the Trade Fair.

While in this bleak East German city once the home of Bach, Peter attempts to find out what happened to his real father. Instead, he meets a girl whose nickname is Snjólaug, after an Icelandic Indian woman in Canada who had taught her grandfather how to skin a muskrat and hand-bleach rabbit skin, skills which later allowed her family to survive in the devastation of post-World War One Germany. Peter calls her Snowleg. They go to a grimly drunken party being held for Snowleg’s brother Bruno, to celebrate the latter’s imminent departure for the West, and afterwards they spend the night together in a freezing shed in Leipzig’s Shreber gardens, where they talk and fall in love.

The next day - the last day of the visit to Leipzig - Snowleg asks Peter if she can hide in the theatre troupe’s dressing-up box as a way of getting across the border. He agrees. He then asks her to come with him to a reception being held at Leipzig’s posh Astoria Hotel, to which the theatre group have been invited. They travel separately to the hotel and, arriving first, Peter goes in to the glittering and snooty reception with his two West German friends. Wondering vaguely if Snowleg will be able to get into the banquet, he loses himself in the fullsome praise for his theatrical skills being lavished on him by the wife of the Permenant Representative seated next to him at the table. There is some kind of scuffle on the other side of the room, and then the Astoria’s doorman approaches him, holding Snowleg by the arm, and asks whether, as she claims, Peter had invited her to the do. Peter says no. The doorman takes Snowleg out of the room, and out of Peter’s life, leaving him with “a terrible clairvoyance that he had become someone else”.

Peter, now shorn of all Arthurian aspirations of gallantry and heroism, returns to Hamburg and spends the next sixteen years as a good German doctor, first as a pediatrician and subsequently changing to gerontology.

His inner life remains defined by his moment of treachery, cowardice and denial in the Leipzig Astoria. He has a succession of affairs and relationships, in the course of which he fathers a son, Milo, with an avant-garde installation artist in Berlin. He is increasingly successful in his career, his earlier experiences in the fashionable world of pediatrics helping him minister to his ageing patients when he moves into the extremely unfashionable milieu of gerontology.

Both Peter and his son Milo become drawn to the oldest of these patients, Frau Weschke, who is 103 when admitted to his clinic in 2002. When she dies, unable to persuade the Berlin post office to accept the silver-topped cane he is trying to return to the old lady’s family in Leipzig, he decides to return her property in person. So Peter returns to Leipzig, now over a a decade into its post Berlin Wall/Iron Curtain reunified era, and the story enters its cathartic final act as Peter renews the first-hand search for both his father and for Snowleg, travelling into the realms of darkness that had been at the heart of the German Democratic Republic, in which the Stasi secret police had ruled supreme.

Nicholas Shakespeare tells this story with a sharp intelligence and sophisticated sense of style. A series of striking images and metaphors involving colours, smells, dogs, birds, books, tastes, movements of the air and Athurian swords gives his writing a rich texture and descriptive accuracy that is a source of pure reading pleasure. The book’s numerous themes and sub-themes, including the complex emotional-historical relationship between England and Germany, the comparable tension between West and East Germany, and the timeless polarities of youth and age, fathers and children, chivalry and reality, love and sex, are each organically developed from the stuff of the narrative, providing a commentary on the characters and action full of insight and ideas, giving the work much of its delicate weight.

The evocation of East Germany in the Iron Curtain period is as fascinating as it is memorable, and is thankfully far removed from any black-and-white simplicity. The landscape, rural and urban, is painted in raw Francis Bacon-like colours of meat, pollution, disease, dull stone and muddy earth, beneath its occasionally enchanting but usually streaked and cruel covering of ice and snow. Yet this bleak and rancid environment of cowardice and corruption is the home to human complexities far more subtle and charming than any standard perceptions of a down-trodden populace heroically surviving beneath the ultimate Stalinist ‘big brother’ bureaucratic dictatorship.

When we first meet Snowleg, she is an enthusiastic proponent of the ideals and purposes of the East German state, trotting out endless comparisons with the trivial obsessions of the West. Even as the true nature of the nation is revealed, to both Snowleg and the reader, its pervasive paranoia and espousal of control culture encompass a degree of complexity that few in the West are likely to have considered.

For the majority of its 400 or so paperback pages, Snowleg is written in the cool ironic tone that one has come to be associated with the best recent English (i.e. British) fiction, within what may be described as the Booker Prize genre - cosmopolitan, detached, post-modern - the fiction of Ian McEwan, Kasuo Isiguro and the like. (I have learnt since finishing Snowleg that it is among the hot favourites to win the Man Booker Prize 2005). Unsurprisingly with such a surname, Mr.Shakespeare is a natural and beguiling writer, as expert and precise in his characterisation as he is in his superb atmospherics and the almost-photographic precision with which he describes his locations. He tells his mixture of love story, search thriller and redemption novel with a lightness of touch, numerous flashes of wit, and consistent sympathy and non-judgemental compassion. He obviously likes dogs and children a lot, as well as birds and teenagers and old people, and he (via his protagonist Peter) has an excellent taste in music. It is a joy to fall beneath his spell.

If the book had been distinguished by these qualities alone, welded together through the fluent assurance of the writing, it would have been enough. But in the final section - when Peter returns to Leipzig in 2002, from where he is drawn inexoribly back into the dark and elusive twilight world of the Stasi, and as the frontiers of reality and deception, information and misinformation, merge and break apart, he sees the Excalibur/Grail of his long and reluctant quest finally take on a form - everything in the book goes up at least another gear, and Snowleg becomes a very special novel indeed, something rare and terrific.

Despite some minor quibbles - a reliance upon serendipity that may be intrinsic to the romantic nature of its plot, certain over-repetitions in the language of its imagery, most notable in the number of sentences containing/ending with ‘the colour of…’ (cold liver, disease, rancid pork, torn paper…whatever) - there is little in either the story or its telling that is not compelling and out-of-the-ordinary.

The very fact that this is a ‘search saga’ that keeps our interest not through the mountain of obscure factoids derived from months of in-depth research but through the powerful ability of its writing to give a far more tangible identity to places, people, even history itself, is sufficient in itself to make the book stand head-and-shoulders above the morass of contemporary fiction. An end result is thereby achieved that is a far more profound and accurate truth than any deriving from a Gradgrind-like sifting through facts, however mountainous and astonishing.

Snowleg is an absolutely essential and wonderful book.


Rated 4.5 Stars - memorable, brilliant, do not miss by Iain Stewart on January 15, 2005

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