Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare
On Peter Hithersay’s sixteenth birthday his mother tells him the secret she’s been holding onto for his entire life, that the man he has always believed to be his father is not, in fact, related to him. When she was younger, his mother had briefly visited East Germany on a musical tour and it was during this trip that Peter was conceived. His real father was a young man on the run from the authorities with whom his mother spent only one night, never even learning his full name.
The news of his true parentage unsettles Peter completely. Though his school friends taunt him about his being German, Peter is determined to find out more about his father, about Germany itself. He learns the language and travels to Hamburg at the first opportunity where he works as a tutor. But it’s not enough. He’s determined to visit the East, and finally achieves this as part of small theatre troupe. It is on this visit that he meets Snowleg, a beautiful young woman with whom he feels an immediate connection, and has his first experience of the surveillance-saturated Kafkaesque landscape that was East Germany under the Stasi. In the short time they spend together Snowleg and Peter share their secrets and become lovers. But when she puts him on the spot at an official dinner, he betrays her, denying that he even knows her, and he returns to the West without finding out what happened to her or even her true name. It’s an act that is to haunt him for the next twenty years.
In making us sympathise with Peter in his quest – his obsession – Nicholas Shakespeare has succeeded in a difficult task. Peter is an awkward, cold character who makes some decisions it is hard to understand. On discovering the truth about his father, he all but abandons his family, not just his mother, but his sister and the man who has raised him as his own son. After the incident with Snowleg he returns to Germany and tries to make amends, but her life is on the other side of the wall and there is little he can do to trace her. Despite this, his one act – betraying the woman he believed he had fallen in love with – becomes his life. He trains as a doctor, has other, failed and messy, relationships and eventually has a son with a woman he doesn’t much care for, but none of this matters in relation to Snowleg.
If it were just one man’s – rather stubborn and selfish – quest for redemption, Shakespeare’s novel might not have the hold that it does, but it is his evocation of the absurdities and appalling realities of life in East Germany that makes the narrative succeed. A lot of this material is familiar through Anna Funder’s recent, excellent Stasiland, the enormous files on every suspect individual, the emotional manipulation, the cataloguing of smell samples. Shakespeare brings all these elements into Snowleg’s story to create something far more resonant and fascinating than the initial premise would suggest.