About the book:
When sixteen-year-old Peter Hithersay discovers that his father is not the affable Englishman married to his mother but an East German political dissident with whom she had a brief affair in the 1960s, he travels, in search of his past, to Leipzig. There he falls in love with a beautiful young woman who is beginning to question the way her society is governed. But their romance ends quickly and badly when his scheme to smuggle her out of the country goes awry and he is forced to return to England.
When the two Germanies are reunited nineteen years later, Peter goes back to look for the woman he has never stopped loving. But his only clues are the nickname he gave her, Snowleg, and the archives of the state that drove them apart.
In Snowleg, Nicholas Shakespeare explores to devastating effect the unassailable dictates of love and politics.
About the author:
NICHOLAS SHAKESPEARE is the author of The Dancer Upstairs and an acclaimed biography of Bruce Chatwin. He lives in Wiltshire, England.
Q. What forces shape the identities of the characters in Snowleg? How are their choices and their personalities affected by their pasts and their families? What does the novel say about the patterns of our lives? For example, how is Peter’s mother’s life, and as a result Peter’s own life, shaped by her one night with Peter’s father?
Q. As soon as he finds out about his German biological father, Peter begins to consciously struggle against his "Englishness," to become more German. What is stereotypically English about Peter? How do such national characteristics get passed on, and how much of our national identities do we choose? Is our "Americanness" an inescapable product of our upbringings or do we choose to act American?
Q. What do you think it says about Peter that he identifies with Sir Bedevere and "the paternal spirit embodied by King Arthur and his chivalric knights" (10)? What is the author saying about chivalry and gallantry? Do you agree with Frau Weschke’s dying words, "It’s all right. None of us are very chivalrous or very brave" (221)? What do you make of the fact that the great failure of Peter’s chivalry, his rejection of Snowleg, actually turns out to have saved them both from Morneweg’s scheme to arrest them at the train station?
Q. Discuss the pivotal passage where Peter rejects Snowleg at the dinner at the Hotel Astoria (124). Why does he do it? What happens to him at that one moment? That one night, like Peter’s mother’s one night with his father, directs the course of the rest of his life. Have you had moments like this in your life? Do you think such moments change our lives because they are important, or because of our belief in their importance?
Q. Discuss Peter’s problematic relationships with women after Snowleg. The author writes that "When lovers first meet they expose their tenderest nerves to the shock of an intimate breath. But as soon as they get to know each other there is a tightening of the armor" (152). Why does Peter seem to wear this armor constantly? Is he afraid of betraying another woman, or simply unable to be emotionally intimate because of his fixation on Snowleg?
Q. Why does Peter switch from pediatrics to gerontology (see page 174)? What is the significance of the child he fails to save, who appears to him in a dream with Snowleg’s face (161)? Does the shift from dealing with the very young to the very old signal a shift in him? How do deaths spur other characters to take action or make changes in their lives (for example, the death of Uwe’s grandmother)?
Q. How do the Stasi’s tactics work? Why do you think they are so effective at controlling the citizens, gathering intelligence about them and spreading disinformation? Uwe remarks that "If you refused to work for the Stasi it rarely led to negative consequences. Of course, Morneweg wanted to get a new informer. But if he couldn’t intimidate or embarrass her, there was little else he could do" (338). If this is true, why are there so many Stasi collaborators? Why don’t more people stand up to the Stasi as Snowleg does?
Q. Snowleg is filled with evocative descriptions of the novel’s settings, from the English countryside of Peter’s childhood, where "the chalky soil glowed up through grass and lines of beech" (12), to the "grey chemical dust on the rooftops" of post-reunification East Germany (237). How does the author use physical description to create or shift the mood and atmosphere of the novel’s sections? Were there any descriptive passages that you found particularly striking or effective?
Q. Animals figure prominently in the novel. How does the author use animals as symbols or metaphors? For example, why is Snowleg repeatedly compared to a giraffe? What is the significance of the scene in which Peter and Theo ride in a truck that hits a deer (112)? What about the Stasi dogs? Do Shakesepare’s animals teach us anything about his humans?
Q. The author treats Uwe much more sympathetically than either of the other Stasi characters. How do you judge him? Do you think he atones at all for his misdeeds by helping Peter?
Q. What do you think of Uwe’s explanation of the Stasi on page 341: "We can all identify with the victims. . . . What about the perpetrators? [The East German system] was formed against fascists and extermination camps. . . . To keep our people safe we felt we had to know everything about them and to make this knowedge a respectable, responsible activity. And that’s where we went wrong." Do you find this convincing as a partial excuse for the Stasi’s actions? Is there a comparison to be made with the current state of this country, where the proper balance of security and privacy are being debated furiously?
Q. Discuss the ambivalence of the East Germans toward the reunification of their country. Renate tells Peter that "Ossis are watchful, like animals in a forest. But Wessis are lost. You don’t know where you are. The forest is inside" (280). What does she mean by this? Why would those living under a totalitarian regime have a more secure inner life than citizens of a freer society? Frau Lube says, "The Wall was a part of me. I knew how far to go. Now I can’t handle what’s happening. It’s too fast. . . . If you behave badly no-one cares" (264). What do both of these quotes suggest about the difficulties of adjusting to freedom?