by Nicholas Shakespeare
Published by Harcourt
400 pages, 2004
Love In the Time of Cold War
Reviewed by David Abrams
In many of William Shakespeare's plays, love turns to catastrophe when it intersects with politics. Witness the doomed Montague and Capulet teenagers, the mad amour of Hamlet and Ophelia or the volcanic jealousy of Othello erupting all over Desdemona. It's not hard to find the knife-edge of court intrigue pressed against the throat of romance in the Bard's world.
Now, four centuries later, another Shakespeare -- Nicholas (presumably no relation) -- continues to mix the same volatile cocktail of passion and politics. In his previous novel, The Dancer Upstairs, a policeman falls for a ballet teacher who may be harboring an elusive Peruvian terrorist. Shakespeare skillfully navigated his way through Graham Greene territory with that gripping political thriller which was later made into a movie directed by John Malkovich.
In his newest book, Snowleg, Shakespeare returns with another story of disrupted romance set against the turbulence of politics. This time, he's changed the scenery from South America to Cold War Germany, spanning 25 years in the lives of a man, a woman and the Berlin Wall that put them asunder.
Snowleg centers around Peter Hithersay, a bland student at a boys' academy in 1977 who has always fancied himself an Arthurian hero -- specifically, Bedevere who goes around rescuing damsels in distress. On his 16th birthday, Peter learns that his real father is not the "affable and diffident" Rodney he's always known, but an East German political prisoner with whom his mother had a one-night stand. In less time than it takes to say "Ich bin ein Berliner," Peter sets off for Germany, searching for clues that might lead him to the father he never knew.
In Leipzig his quest changes course when he crosses paths with a beautiful girl. In true Hollywood fashion, there's a meet-cute when she asks him to examine her epiglottis on their first date (don't worry, it all makes sense later in the book). As he's looking down her throat, Peter finds himself tumbling head over heels for this girl with the long eyelashes and blackberry undercurrents in her hair. She tells him her grandmother's nickname for her is "Snjolaug" an Icelandic word which, to his Western ears, sounds like "Snowleg."
Like his mother before him, Peter has a one-night stand. To him, Snowleg is "something fine and pure-bred and delicate with a natural haughtiness that didn't know its own power." When Snowleg begs him to help her escape beyond the Iron Curtain, his Arthurian impulse kicks into overdrive:
He recognized elements of himself in Bedevere, someone who was not a natural leader but who had pockets of this quality which allowed him to advance and retreat (he) sometimes wished he might come across a dragon-threatened damsel so that he could display a courage which his surface hid.
He finds that lady in distress in Snowleg, but when it comes time for knightly courage, it sticks in his throat and he betrays her plans to escape to the West. Snowleg is hauled away and Peter returns to England, bitterly disappointed and feeling guilty about his failure. He spends the next 30 years -- and the remainder of the book -- trying to assuage his regret in a series of doomed relationships. He gets work as a doctor in reunified Germany, all the time keeping an eye out for the girl whose life he believes he ruined. Though Snowleg predictably disappears off the page for most of the book, she's never far from Peter's mind. Midway through the story, he vows, "At some stage in my life I'm by God going to find that girl and atone."
Though perhaps too much of the book's second half is given over to a mopey Peter sitting around regretting his romantic paralysis and the narrative likewise loses energy, there are some bright spots. Every so often, Shakespeare stops the breath in our throats with beautiful imagery: a sky has "the grey-white texture of freshly filleted cod," a swan taking flight sounds like someone shaking out their raincoat, Snowleg walks down the aisle of a cathedral, "drawing all the light in the church to her face."
Then, too, there are moments when Shakespeare loses control of his pen and we get sloppy sentences like when Peter's soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend tells him, "There's a Berlin Wall between your psyche and your intellect." Puh-leeze. It's as if Shakespeare knew we were bracing ourselves for a bad Wall metaphor and didn't want to disappoint our expectation.
The novel moves at a cool, deliberate pace; nothing rushes the author (though sometimes we wish it would) as Peter's life methodically unspools in a quest for identity and redemption. While Peter walks the bleak, snowy streets of Berlin in search of Snowleg, we're already a few steps ahead of him. The story's big revelation comes not with a surprising crash of cymbals but a soft "hmpf -- saw that one coming a hundred pages away." Just as in another Shakespeare's work, the climax is a collision of coincidences.
What saves the book from total collapse is the way in which Shakespeare draws us into the lives of his characters and their personal and political quests. As the two Germanys reunite, we hope Peter will find his Snowleg and that all will be forgiven and healed. | November 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.