Romance without Kitsch
In his latest novel, Swiss writer Alex Capus brings to life the 18th century at the time of the French Revolution. Once again, he successfully uses characters on the margins of history to provide profound insights into the past.
By Swantje Schütz
Late summer in the Swiss Gruyère district. Max and his wife Tina are driving across the Jaun Pass when heavy snow starts to fall. Their car ends up sliding into a ditch and gets snowed in within a short period of time. As there is no mobile reception at this altitude either, they end up having to spend the night. Aiming to pass the time as pleasantly as possible, Max begins to tell a story set in the local area.
Max would just as happily have read to his wife from the Toyota’s manual, had it been at hand. But as it happens, it is the love story of Jakob, a poor shepherd boy, and Marie, a rich farmer’s daughter.
Love with obstaclesThe story begins in 1779 in a milking hut that would be visible from the snowed-in Toyota if it wasn’t for all the snow. And it also ends in these parts. However, in between lie years in which Jakob and Marie are separated, for the cheeky barefoot shepherd joins the French military and becomes a soldier in gleaming black boots. Marie, on the other hand, stays behind on her parents’ farm. It takes until 1789, a few days before the French Revolution, before the two of them finally see each other again – in Montreuil, a country estate near the Palace of Versailles that belongs to Elisabeth, the sister of French king Louis XVI.
Two linguistic levels, two narrative levelsAlex Capus’ Königskinder [Royal Children] is a wonderful book, brimming with suspense and romance. Admittedly, it takes some time to get used to narrator Max and the ever-interrupting Tina – when you would rather just follow the story of Jakob and Marie.
In the present, Max and Tina use today’s modern language, whereas Jakob and Marie move within the world and language of the 18th century. This spirited transition between levels suggests to the reader even more strongly that the narrative within the narrative is a true story – or at least it’s supposed to be. For Max himself says: “Then again, it’s not actually that important whether a story is true or not. What’s important is that it is genuine.” Be that as it may, the princess and her country estate really did exist.
Supreme storytellingTalking to Deutschlandfunk Kultur radio, Johannes Kaiser aptly described Alex Capus’ style: “Capus is a master of atmospheric depiction. He needs no more than a few words to describe life in the mountains or pre-revolutionary life around and inside the Palace of Versailles in a vivid and detailed, at times suggestive manner. Straight away, you have a mental image.”
In Jakob, the Normandy-born writer has magnificently created an endearing, compassionate protagonist. At one point, four of Marie’s father’s farmhands intend to beat Jakob up after he and Marie have spent a few days on the mountain pastures. Capus touchingly describes Jakob’s reaction: “Jakob would like to try to avoid a fight if that were possible; firstly, because each of the four farmhands was a child once, too, and had a mother, a favourite toy and a big dream, and secondly, because a fight always means danger, regardless of the opponent.”
München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 2018. 185 S.
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