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.