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?

WWWednesday 16 October 2019

It’s been a long time since I participated in this weekly meme, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently reading:

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today – A dark thriller about suicide pacts of people who belong to a cult – even if they don’t know they do. I studied so-called cults for my Ph.D; it’s a term that I really objecto to, because, as the author quotes right at the start of the book: ‘Nobody joins a cult. Nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them. You join a religious organsiation, you join a political movement, and you join with people that you really like.’ For #Orentober reading with Orenda Books.

Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) – To continue with my Swiss in October reading, another francophone Swiss writer, despite his Germanic sounding name, with a psychological thriller.

Always in the background: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries (the German edition) – trying to read one entry per day, although it usually ends up being 4 days’ worth of entries in one day and then a break.

Just finished:

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – part of my Swiss in October reading. The story of the two most notorious bank robbers in Basel or perhaps the whole of Switzerland. I had no idea this was based on a true story and was about to give it brownie points for the stylistic innovation of making it sound like it’s a documentary, with quotes from eyewitnesses and people reminiscing after the event.

Camil Petrescu for the #1930Club

Reading next:

Nicola Barker: The Cauliflower – From one guru to another; and finally a woman writer after a very male-centred week of reading.

China Mieville: Embassytown – because I think it might be a nice counterpoint to the Meier novel, with crime fiction as a pretext for uncovering so much more.

Looking ahead at November, because some of my blogger friends so kindly reminded me that it will be German Literature Month, I have the following possibilities in mind: