October Reading Summary

I’ve had quite a few days of holiday this month, but somehow my plans to spend them mostly reading didn’t quite work. Nevertheless, this is the month that I’ve reached (and overtaken) my Goodreads challenge of 120 books, so it’s not all bad.

9 books read, 7 of them were for a particular purpose, while two were just to relax. Only three of them by women, and a total of six in translation. Here were the reading targets I set for myself:

1930Club – a reread of a classic of Romanian literature and a sobering look at the First World War – Camil Petrescu

Orentober – Orenda Book authors, with two dark and twisted tales from Antti Tuomainen and Will Carver

Swiss in October – my own attempt to read thematically by geography every month, with three Francophone writers and one Allophone writer. From physical bank robbers in Basel to corrupt businesses in Lausanne, from feeling alien in LA to reacting to ‘aliens’ in canton Vaud.

Finally, the two that were just for relaxation, commuting or travelling by plane were: How It Was by Janet Ellis – a rather piercing portrait of family dynamics in the 1970s and rivalry between mother and daughter; and Tammy Cohen’s They All Fall Down, set in a psychiatric clinic, yet miles away from All Dogs Are Blue, for instance.

November is German Literature Month, so instead of allowing Indonesia, the Middle East or Canada to beckon to me, I will probably linger in Europe for just a little longer.

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?

Swiss in October: The Basel Bank Robbers

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring (Fast ein bisschen Frühling)

When I picked up this book (for £1-2 in a second-hand bookshop), I had no idea that it was based on a true story. I had read Capus before – a series of vignettes about his town and neighbours – and I knew he liked to blend fact and fiction, so I just thought it was a stylistic choice to have quotes from witnesses, flash-forwards to people who are not even aware that events took place where they now live or work etc. It is far less experimental than that: while based on thorough research, it also imagines some of the back story and motives of the characters caught up in the events. Capus reportedly spent 15 years writing this novel – he wanted it to be factually accurate but also funny, sad and film-like. He certainly manages to infuse this rather violent tale with much charm and sprightliness.

The author himself makes the comparison to Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious American bank robbers who operated at roughly the same time, in the 1930s. In this case, we have Kurt Sandweg und Waldemar Velte, born on nearly the same day in the depressingly grey industrial region of Wuppertal in Germany. Friends since childhood, joined at the hip despite their differences: Kurt is tall, gangly, friendly ‘like an Austrian’ and can talk the hind legs off a donkey, Waldemar is short and taciturn, serious ‘like a Finn.’ Or so Dorly Schupp describes them when she first catches sight of them.

Dorly is a shop assistant at the Globus department store in the centre of Basel and the two young men walk into her life on the 13th of December 1933, looking to buy a record. They have left Germany, disgusted by the rise of Hitler, and were looking to make their way to India or America. However, they are continually thwarted in their attempts to go further afield – the paperwork is impossible to obtain, America has its own millions of unemployed people – and so they end up in Basel, carrying a gramophone as a souvenir from their stopover in Paris.

Waldemar (and possibly Kurt as well) falls for Dorly and invite her to walk with them on the banks of river. Dorly may be young and pretty, but she is not a naive youngster, and she wants to make sure that nothing untoward happens, so she invites her friend Marie Stifter along. It is this Marie Stifter, who only joins them once or twice, who links the factual part of the story to the fictional one. She is the woman who later becomes the grandmother of the narrator, who is not quite Alex Capus but someone close enough. She is from a village in the Basler hinterland, where everything seems so warm and welcoming, and all the neighbours know each others’ business. Marie is ‘promised’ to the best bachelor in the village, Ernst Walder, the narrator’s grandfather, but their is not the real love story.

What the women do not know, of course, is that the young men are on the run, having held up a bank in Stuttgart and killed the manager. They seem pleasant enough and keep postponing their departure, buying more records and going out with Dorly. On the 5th of January they rob another bank in Basel in a stolen car and with stolen pistols. Once again, they leave with barely any cash but having shot the director and the cashier. The inept duo then try to leave the region, but fail to make it into Spain, fail to board a ship in Marseille. Waldemar writes lovelorn letters to Dorly, wondering if there is any place for the three of them to start over:

All this hassle with passports and visas and transit permits and timetables, this eternal money changing… it goes on forever and what’s the upshot? You realise that the world is one big fortress. A prison, an inescapable Alcatraz… If you really wanted to escape and not simply run from one cell into the next, you’d have to go further afield, much further – to the last blank spaces on the map. There are always some somewhere, but it’s a peculiarity of blank spaces that you can’t get to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be blank.

So they come back into the lion’s mouth, return to Basel, meet Dorly again. They are wanted men, of course, although no one is sure of their identity yet. As the police operation noose tightens around them, they try to escape, shooting more people in the process. When Dorly finds out what her new friends are capable of, she gives them up to the police and it ends in a predictable bloodbath as they try to avoid capture.

The Wanted Notice, warning that they are dangerous and armed.

The final chapters are in many ways the most poignant. We get to see what the newspapers of the time thought of this, the most notorious bank robbers ever to grace Swiss soil. The left-wing papers call them Nazis, the right-wing ones call them nasty immigrants and anarchists, the Catholics think they are manifestations of evil. Only one young girl shows any compassion for the criminals:

We grew up in the same era as them and have had to experience the world as they did, a world that gives young people no space, no scope for making the most of their talents, and has only one thing to offer: unemployment… Isn’t it understandable that they should turn their energy against that society?

We also get to see the reactions of their families and friends when they hear about their criminal lives and their violent death. Most poignant of all, we hear that Dorly had a hard time following the event, considered either an accomplice or a traitor, and booed by both sides. Her trail goes cold after December 1942, when she was supposed to move to Geneva. She never showed up there, however.

Capus said that, after publishing the novel, he would sometimes have people coming up to him and telling him they knew some of the people involved or had worked at Globus at the time themselves etc. He is still waiting, he says, for an old lady to stand up in the audience at some point and say: ‘But I wasn’t working in the record section of the store!’ There are some reports that she changed her name and lived to a ripe old age, married and had children, but I’m not sure whether we can believe that. Besides, isn’t the wistful and mysterious ending rather more beautiful?

Funnily enough, after reading the book, I realised that I had read Caroline’s review (she lives in Basel so is even closer to the locations described there), but had forgotten the bit about the ‘true story’ part.

Swiss in October: Pascale Kramer

Pascale Kramer was born in Geneva and bred in Lausanne, worked in Zurich, but has also spent long stints abroad, in LA and Paris, and this shows in her writing. I don’t expect you’ll have heard of her, unless you are very passionate about Swiss authors, but she has written 14 novels, is a prize winner in her home country and has had three books translated into English and published by Bellevue Literary Press: The Living, The Child, and Autopsy of a Father. The latter has been reviewed by the EuroLitNetwork.

The novel I picked up on my last visit to Geneva L’implacable brutalité du réveil (The Unbearable Brutality of Waking) has not been translated yet, and it seems less ambitious in scope than some of her other works. She has a reputation for observing minute reactions and behaviours, and for exploring tricky family dynamics. She certainly does so here, but the wider social aspect which appears in Autopsy of a Father is missing.

I bought this one under the mistaken assumption that it was about expat life, but in fact Alissa and Richard seem to be Americans living in LA. They have only recently moved into their own condo and have a five week old daughter. Alissa seems to be struggling with post-natal depression and feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. Her parents live nearby and have supported her all her life, but now they are trying to get her to cut the apron-strings, and she feels somewhat neglected. Then her mother drops the bombshell that she has fallen in love with somebody else and left the parental home.

Alissa’s little world seems to split wide open at this news. She feels no desire for her husband, struggles to connect with her baby, finds it a pain to keep in touch with her girlfriends, makes silly mistakes and is far too attracted to their male neighbour whom she sees swimming and embracing a woman one day.

This is familiar ground, one that has been treated in a much more emotionally wrenching way by Ariana Harwicz in Die, My Love. Alissa seems spoilt and whiny in a way that Harwicz’ narrator (who is far closer to a violent breakdown) does not. The close observation of Alissa’s daily routine is stifling, but a trifle predictable and not all that interesting, while the flights of poetry and the peaks and troughs of an unstable state of mind in the Harwics novel are exhilarating (if depressing). Could that be a cultural difference between an Argentinian and a Swiss writer, both of them now settled in France?

It also had me wondering why Swiss writers are quite often keen to set their novels abroad, particularly in the United States. I’m thinking of Joel Dicker, of course, with his Harry Quebert Affair and its sequel. But if I just glance at the Swiss books I’ve piled up on my bedside table, such a large proportion of them are set elsewhere: Tunisia (Jonas Lüscher), Norway (Peter Stamm), Italy (Pascal Mercier), East Africa (Alex Capus). Of course, I’m not suggesting that writers have to stick to their homeland, but perhaps the Swiss feel more confined than most by their very small country and its many, many rules?

So, overall a rather disappointing read, although I might explore other books by this author at some other point. By way of contrast, I turn next towards an author who describes village life in Switzerland in disconcertingly perfect detail: Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz.