#GermanLitMonth and #NovNov: Jonas Lüscher

Jonas Lüscher: Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), 2013. Translated by Peter Lewis and published by Chicago University Press/Haus Publishing.

You might argue that a 192 page book is not a novella, but that is the length of the English-language version. The German version is roughly 120 pages, which makes me wonder whether the English translation also contains some additional notes or simply a larger font and more white spaces.

Lüscher is a contemporary Swiss novelist and essayist. He studied philosophy and therefore seems to delight in writing books that pose a bit of an ethical dilemma or a larger existential question. His second novel, Kraft, is about an aging, out-of-kilter German professor trying to win a prize by demonstrating to a Silicon Valley audience that ‘our world is still, despite all evidence, the best of all possible worlds, and how we might improve it even further through technology’. That should make it clear that the author loves satire, and this is obvious in his first book too, Barbarian Spring.

Written soon after the 2008 financial crash but well before the Brexit referendum and all that followed, the book makes fun of the UK’s banking industry (one might say ‘the pot calling the kettle black’) but has a more profound message about just how quickly our trappings of civilisation can disappear when faced with a crisis. I will share the blurb with you for a plot summary, because I don’t think I can write a better one myself:

Preising, Swiss industrialist and garrulous fusspot, finds himself in Tunisia, attending the wedding of two City traders from London. At an old Berber oasis transformed into a luxury resort, the bride rides in on a camel to take her vows. The ludicrous excesses of these braying, young, high-flying wealth-creators knows no bounds. But as they carouse the night away, sterling stands on the brink of collapse and Britannia looks set to slip beneath the waves of bankruptcy and chaos. Next morning, with thumping heads and their credit cards maxed out, and as the first rumblings of the Arab Spring grip their host country, the Bright Young Neo-Thatcherites stage a revolt of their own with unimaginably grotesque and blackly humorous consequences.

Bill and Ben Books, https://www.billandbenbooks.co.uk/general/0046356-barbarian-spring

The story is told in a rather unusual way. Preising is prattling away, telling his story to the actual first-person narrator. They are both of them recovering from some kind of mental breakdown in a sanatorium. I wasn’t sure why this distancing device was necessary in such a short novel, but it does allow the narrator to comment more critically on Preising’s own interpretation of the story. Not that we are in any doubt that he is a rather unreliable narrator, well-meaning but weak, fairly observant about others, but at the same time rather blind to his own cultural relativism and liberalism ‘shallow as a children’s paddling pool’. He is a complete Mr Average, who has inherited his family’s business, run quite efficiently by the scrappy Bosnian immigrant Prodanovic, who uses him as a figurehead of dependability, but sends him out of the way whenever important decisions are being made.

This is how he ends up in the very upmarket Tunisian resort (designed to resemble what Westerners expect a Berber or Touareg camp to be like, although the architect did point out that there were no Touaregs in Tunisia). Supposedly, he is there to finalise a deal with one of their Tunisian suppliers, who owns the resort (among many other pies), but there doesn’t seem to be much for him to do, so he befriends the parents of the bridegroom of a wedding party, a financial trader who has brought all of his equally swanky, spoilt friends to the resort.

Of course all their luxury and high jinks become a desperate scrabble for survival, as the resort manager – uncertain of ever being paid for the whole wedding party – stops giving them any food and closes the pool and other amenities, while an Arab Spring type uprising turns against the rich and corrupt Tunisian owners as well. Some Lord-of-the-Flies-type scenes follow, including a particularly graphic one involving camel death. Turns out we are never too far from descending into barbarity, but in the end the narrator is left wondering what the whole point of Preising’s story was, and whether there was anything to be learnt from it.

I too couldn’t help but wonder about that. I enjoyed the satirical tone and the scene-setting, but found it took too long to reach the point of economic collapse (aside from the fact that the complete and utter collapse of a country and its currency is rather far-fetched, Argentina, Venezuela and recent examples of bankruptcy and defaulting on debts notwithstanding). ‘While Preising slept, England went under.’ By way of contrast, the scenes following the collapse were rather too rushed, hurtling towards a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. The suave swerve into dystopia was not quite as elegant as with J. G. Ballard or Don DeLillo, but it was amusing nonetheless. For UK politics watchers, there was the additional bonus of visualising David Cameron in this scene (it was too early for Boris Johnson):

In effect, what Preising was presenting me with here was a variation on the theme of ‘Where were you when Britain went bankrupt?’. This genre had recently taken over from the earlier ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ […] Likewise, we all now vividly remember the moment when the fresh-faced PM in his baby-blue silk tie – which I always considered an unduly optimistic and frivolous choice under the circumstances – commenced his speech with the words ‘In thirteen hundred and forty-five, when King Edward the Third told his Florentine bankers…’ Sure, it had a far less iconic image than 9/11, but it’s still seared on our collective memory.

It’s these satirical moments about globalism that really lifted the work for me, even when it felt a little top-heavy in terms of structure. A sharp, witty debut, which certainly makes me curious to search for the second novel by this author.

Topple over, you charming little TBR pile…

Well, yes, thank you very much for asking, my TBR pile is nice and healthy. Growing taller by the day. It’s such a charming creature, in fact, that I cannot help giving it some delicious tidbits although I know it should go on a diet.

So this is what I’ve been feeding the greedy little creature lately:

Geneva-related chocolates

I bought one of Kathleen Jamie‘s older collection of poems The Tree House in preparation for the masterclass in Geneva. Then I made the fatal mistake (or maybe it was deliberate?) of arranging to meet my friend at the well-stocked Payot bookshop at the railway station and indulged in two Swiss Romande women writers I have heard of, but never read: Alice Rivaz – a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and equally feminist, with a collection of short stories entitled Sans alcool (Without alcohol); Pascale Kramer’s L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Relentless Brutality of Awakening) – prize-winning contemporary author with a novel about an expat spouse trying to make sense of motherhood and living abroad in California. Last but not least, I also have a copy of Offshoots 14, the literary journal published every two years by Geneva Writers Group. This edition was edited by Patti Marxsen and I am delighted to have a poem included in it.

Blogger Delights

From the Pandora’s box that is reading other people’s book blogs, I garnered an old copy of Letters from England by Karel Čapek, one of the foremost Czech writers.  Emma from Book Around recommended it as a delightful light read and how right she was! Although it is set in the 1920s, it describes many of the things which puzzles us foreigners about the UK (he also visited Scotland, Wales and Ireland, not just England) even now – and all done with great charm and affection (plus his own illustrations). Kaggsy and Simon Thomas also read this and really enjoyed it.

I can’t remember who mentioned Jonas Lüscher – it could have been Shigekuni, who is my source of wisdom in all things German language, or someone linking up to German Literature Month. Lüscher is a Swiss German writer who won the Swiss Book Prize this year for his second novel Kraft. However, I decided to get his first novel Frühling der Barbaren (Barbarian Spring), about privileged English bankers and a Swiss trust fund man finding themselves in the middle of a financial crisis in the Tunisian desert.

Last but not least, I am a great Shirley Jackson fan and a kind soul on Twitter told me that the excellent recent biography Shirley Jackson. A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin is now out in paperback, so it seemed like the perfect Christmas present for myself.

I Spy With My Little Eye…

I came across these books on the shelves of libraries.

The first one was at Ty Newydd by Welsh author Stuart Evans: The Caves of Alienation. I started reading it there and found it so enticing that I had to buy my own copy (not at all easy to find, incidentally). It’s about a well-known writer, the forces that shaped him, his controversial life and why he comes to a sticky end on an isolated Welsh island. It is very funny and clever, told from a variety of viewpoints (friends, lovers, teachers, documentaries, critics, biographers etc.).

Finally, I saw this children’s book at my local library and just couldn’t resist as a cat-lover. His Royal Whiskers by Sam Gayton is about the heir of the Petrossian Empire, Prince Alexander, who miraculously gets transformed into a fluffy-wuffy kitten… I don’t know if my children will read this – they might be too old for it – but I certainly will! And this proves why open shelf libraries are so essential: you find things you didn’t even know you were looking for. It jolts you out of your everyday and wearisome rote.

Now, greedy little monster, do behave and join your companions over there to digest your food on the night-table!

It is so nice to have a bedroom and two night-tables all to yourself. I have a set of crime fiction books and poetry on the right hand side, and the current books plus library books on the left hand side. These neat little skyscrapers are not so popular with Zoe, who tries to balance precariously on them as she joins me for some evening reading. Maybe she is jealous that the TBR pile gets fed more frequently than she does (or so she thinks). Maybe some day she will learn to jump up at the foot of the bed instead…