Swiss literary scene From Lausanne to Grisons

The Swiss flag; © colourbox.com
The Swiss flag | Photo (detail): © colourbox.com

In recent years Switzerland has sent strong literary signals to the book market: for her novel “Tauben fliegen auf” (Pigeons Fly Away) Melinda Nadj Abonji was awarded the 2011 German Book Prize, while for her first novel, the expressively innovative “Einladung an die Waghalsigen“ (Invitation to the Daring), Dorothee Elmiger has moved into the first rank of young German-language authors. A tour ranging from Lausanne on Lake Geneva to the Grisons Alps provides a look at the diversity of current Swiss literature.

Olivier Sillig is an amiable man with a stubbly beard and wire-rimmed glasses. The wrinkles round his eyes betray his precise but affectionate view of the world, which he retains as an artist. He has tried his hand at almost everything, from painting to film, and still works as a computer specialist and child psychologist. Two of his novels have now appeared in German. He lives in Lausanne and writes in French.

Sillig’s Schule der Gaukler (School of Jugglers), published in German by a small Swiss publishing house, is a historical panorama about a boy who joins a troupe of traveling entertainers and travels with them through Europe. In their luggage is a marvelous thing, a hermaphrodite pickled in formaldehyde. Sillig packs the life story of this hybrid being as a book within his book and so touches on a variety of questions about sexuality, identity and growing up. In its epic breadth and powerfully colorful picture of the late Middle Ages, Schule der Gaukler moves in the vicinity of historical novels such as those of Umberto Eco and recalls the tradition of Romance language literature.

Stories aren’t like teeth

On the way from Lausanne to Zurich, we make a short stop in Bern: here lives Pedro Lenz. He is a performer, and avails himself of his characteristic dialect, the broad Bernese German. His novel Der Goalie bin ig (I’m the Goalie) reads as follows: “Gschichte si nid wi Zähn, wo nume zwöi Mou chömen und wenn se verbrucht hesch, isch fertig. Nei, d Gschichte wachsen immer wieder noche” (Stories aren’t like teeth, which grow only twice and when they’re used up, it’s over. No, stories always grow back again.). For unpracticed ears, this is not easy to understand – there is therefore now a translation in High German: Der Keeper bin ich (I Am The Goalkeeper). In this novel there are no mountain idylls and Heidi romanticism, but rather drug dealers, men that beat their women, and farmers that offer withdrawal treatments on their farms for drug addicts. Lenz narrates all this with a dry humor and great affection for his raddled characters, who could hardly provide a better counter model to the stereotype of “clean Switzerland”.

A strange journey in Jewish Zurich

From Bern it is a big leap to Zurich. Here bankers mix with artists, Swiss with Germans, French and Italians. And the religions too: Zurich, the city of the reformer Ulrich Zwingli, has a Jewish community. There Thomas Meyer has set his debut novel about the sorrows of the young Mordechai Wolkenbruch. It is time for Mordechai, called in the novel “Motti” for short, to marry. Traditionally, his mother is responsible for arranging this, but Motti would much rather marry a pretty fellow student, who does not seem like she wants to fit into the picture of the perfect wife. So Wolkenbruchs wunderliche Reise in die Arme einer Schickse (Wolkenbruch’s Strange Journey into the Arms of a Shiksa) goes its adventurous way and casts a very entertaining look at the life of a young Jewish man in Switzerland. The sprinkling of Yiddish, with which Meyer repeatedly plays, particularly makes the novel a real reading pleasure.

The great world in miniature

The last stop is Grisons, the easternmost canton of Switzerland. Here the Alps are highest and the mountain pastures greenest, which is why the canton is called “Switzerland in Switzerland”. Arno Camenisch, for whom writing is directly related to the surroundings of the writer, was born here in 1978 and is a speaker of Romansh, which resonates in his short stories and novels. The proximity to Italian stamps his language: “Protocol, sagt mein Bruder. Bis wir durchs ganze Dorf sind, haben wir fünfundzwanzig Häuser gezählt, acht Heustalls, eine Autogarascha, eine Töffgarascha, den Bahnhof mit der Poscht…” (Protocol, says my brother. By the time we reach the end of the village we’ve counted twenty-five houses, eight drying frames, a car garaga, a moped garaga, the train station with the posta …). It is the great world in miniature that Camenisch captures in his very own way.

The story of contemporary literature in Switzerland is also the story of small, committed publishers, who can carry on their work thanks to generous cultural funding. Many, like bilgerverlag and salis, have their headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland’s publishing center. Urs Engeler in Solothurn guides the publication of Arno Camenisch’s books; Camenisch, like Pedro Lenz, can also be heard on CD. The Verlag Der gesunde Menschenversand (Common Sense Publishing House) has taken up the spoken word.

Swiss publishers want their books also to be read in Germany: for the organization of book presentations and reading tours abroad, the independent publishers have joined together in SWIPS, short for Swiss Independent Publishers. In this way they can enable appearances by, for example, Pedro Lenz and Thomas Meyer at the big book fairs in Leipzig and Frankfurt. No one will begrudge them the attention, for there is more going on in the Swiss literary landscape than one might think at first glance.