Swiss in October: Whiter than White

Turning from actual bank robbers to those who rob under the cover of banks…

Ah, the rule-bound, neutral, beautifully clean Confederation at the heart of Europe! Switzerland often presents itself as whiter than white, but there have been critics (both abroad and within the country itself) who are all too eager to point out some of the unethical practices that certain revered Swiss institutions engage in. The banks are notorious in this regard, but have come under close scrutiny in the past decade or so. The novel Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) by Sébastien Meier, however, focuses on Swiss corporations and the international commodities market.

It is the second in a trilogy of novels about Swiss corruption, featuring Paul Bréguet, a former policeman in his fifties, and prosecutor Emilie Rosetti. In the first in the series, we discover the gradual descent into punitive madness, as Paul commits murder to avenge the death of his young lover, Romain Baptiste. At the start of the second book he has just been released from prison after two years on a lesser charge. He tries to reconnect with his mother, now widowed and in the early stages of dementia. But the past just won’t go away.

An industrialist called Beat Flückiger puts the pressure on him to investigate not the death of his nephew (he has proof that Paul killed him), but to recover any documents his nephew might have found about dubious business practices in his company. To his dismay, Paul finds that both Romain and his father were implicated in a nefarious money-laundering operation involving criminal networks, prostitution and unethical transactions on the Nigerian oil market. He teams up with Emilie Rosetti, but they both need to operate with utmost caution, as too many people in the higher echelons of business and government have too much to lose.

To be honest, I got a bit lost in the painstaking investigation into financial transactions, although if you enjoyed TV series like the Danish Follow the Money or McMafia, you will probably enjoy all of this. There were perhaps a few too many of those details, which made a couple of chapters sound more like journalism rather than fiction. All of the really exciting action seems to come at the very end, in the last few chapters, which is quite a long wait if you are a thriller fan. But what I did enjoy were those side-swipes at the cynical and arrogant super-rich of Switzerland. Apologies in advance for the inelegant translations (all mistakes are my own):

In canton Vaud, you pamper the rich man, mistrust his power and adore his wealth.

The reason we’ve embarked upon this crusade, even though we have no concrete evidence, is because we have to make up for all those who’ve becoming champions in closing their eyes or looking studiously elsewhere in this country.

… the sudden late discovery of a conscience in Swiss banking…

Lest this all becomes too idealistic, we also hear the point of view of the capitalists, who believe Switzerland would collapse if it were unable to pursue its international trade unhindered.

It’s not profit that drives me, it’s necessity… Commerce lies at the very heart of our system. It’s our only weapon in Switzerland – we don’t have any other resources. We are tiny, surrounded by European sharks. Who do you think you are? Switzerland is part of the global economy. She plays that game, that’s all, neither more nor less than any of the others. It’s a disgusting game, but if you want to continue to have the same standard of living, you’ve got to let me get on with my business.

I also liked the casual way in which the bisexuality of its main protagonist was introduced (probably not easy in the traditionalist society he seems to be moving in). Another strength of the book was the way it made its backdrop (mainly Lausanne, but also Geneva and the surrounding area) come to life. Fancy art exhibitions and hipster cafés jostle alongside sleazy bars and camouflaged poverty. I also realised the power of the familiar names of streets and being able to follow the routes of someone being stalked, for example, through the Flon quarter of Lausanne. (This might be of less interest to someone unfamiliar with the town, I do realise.) Every now and then, you become aware of the breathtaking beauty of the natural surroundings, which makes it contrast even more with the dirty and dangerous business being conducted there.

The train rattled on the hillside, between the Lavaux vineyards and the immensity of the Lake Leman with its intense, deep blue. Behind the Jura mountains, the sun was setting scarlet. Two Belle Epoque ships were gracefully slicing through the calm waters. An intercity with all its windows alight was passing on the Lausanne-Vevey track by the lakeside. She had the impression she was observing a miniature model of Switzerland.

Which brings us full circle to the achingly beautiful landscapes described by Ramuz, which also served as the perfect staging for human error and tragedy. Could it be that what Swiss writers are trying to say is that humans are not at the level of the natural beauty they’ve been gifted with?

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.