Tag Archives: Swiss Literature

Year of the Drought by Roland Buti

Thirteen-year-old Gus Sutter vividly remembers the summer of 1976 not just for the preternaturally harsh drought, but also for the incidents leading up to the disintegration of his family.  Gus, his mother and father, his older sister Lea, and a mentally challenged worker named Rudy live on the family’s farm in the Swiss plateau.  Buti’s take on a coming-of-age story is captivating because of the impending sense of doom and ruin that he weaves throughout Gus’s narrative.  All of the nature around them foreshadows the sad fate of this family; the crops are burning in the sun, the family dog, Sheriff, keeps fainting and their chickens are dying by the dozens in the heat.  The Sutter’s ancient mare, Bagatelle, who never moves from her barn has broken free from her rope and made her way down to the local river to die.  And finally, perhaps the most eerie omen of all, is that Gus has found a dove that cannot fly because its fail feathers have been destroyed by a predator.

The arrival of a strange woman named Cecile, an employee at a neighboring post office, is the first hint that something is wrong with the Sutter family unit.  Cecile seems  oddly close to Gus’s mother and he can’t quite figure out why their relationship makes him so uncomfortable.  His mother has never shown very much affection or emotion towards her family.  Gus’s description of her, the morning after he finds the wounded dove,  is particularly sad since it comes from her thirteen-year-old son who clearly craves his mother’s affection:

I was glad that she had petted my dove, accepted its presence without argument.  Mum was always busy with a multitude of tasks that no doubt helped to keep her from feelings of despair.  I would have liked to be in the bird’s place.  I would have liked her to set down her towel and dry her hands, to come over and kiss me, stroke my hair, tickle my neck with the tips of her fingers.  When I left for school, she would give me a dry peck on the cheek, a kiss from the very tip of her lips that echoed in the cool morning.  Lingering on my skin for less than a millisecond, her mouth imparted no sense of its moistness.  She never gave me a tender pat of encouragement to send me on my way.

She is too busy playing the role of mother, housekeeper and accountant to enjoy anything else in life, but Cecile awakens something in her that Gus has never seen before—genuine happiness.  Gus slowly realizes that Cecile is a threat to his family when he discovers that since Cecile has moved in, Gus’s father is sleeping in the guest room.  When Gus questions his father about it, he is ruthlessly scolded for not minding his own business.

The character for whom I had the most sympathy was Gus’s father, Jean.  He inherits his farm from his own father and works from sun up until sunset to make barely enough of a living on which to sustain his family.  He is a man of few words, so it is through his actions that he demonstrates his unique, unconditional love for his wife, even when she abandons him, their children and the farm.   One night at dinner when Cecile encourages Gus’s mother to get a job, Jean nearly chokes Cecile to death in a fit of rage.  Later on, a group of neighbors make fun of Jean because of his wife’s indiscretions with Cecile and he punches and kicks these men until they can no longer stand.  But as revenge, those same men beat Jean with farm tools until he can’t walk and has to stay in bed for days.  Even Gus himself, who makes a disparaging comment about his mother after she leaves, is punched in the mouth and knocked out by his father.  As his wife drifts further and further away from him, he seems to be preparing himself for the inevitable.  Gus observes about his father:

He seemed to have decided that only objects and animals were worthy of his consideration.  He would carefully examine each tool he picked up, as if a pitchfork or a shovel could bring some answer to the problem of suffering.  He had taken to sitting down in front of Sheriff and staring at him, which made our dog uncomfortable, unused as he was to being treated as anything more than part of the furniture.  He would hang his head to the side quizzically, tongue hanging out, as if waiting for an explanation.  The truth was that Dad was training himself for solitude.

Gus’s father, after his wife leaves and the children are on their own, spends his days alone at the farm.  A very sad fate for a kind, honest, hardworking man who loved his wife, his family and his land.  Buti has created a memorable group of characters whom he fittingly sets among a vivid and harsh landscape.

Thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for recommending this book to me.  Please stop by his blog and read his wonderful review of this novel: https://1streading.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/year-of-the-drought/

 

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Filed under French Literature, Literature in Translation

Review: Behind The Station by Arno Camenisch

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Dalkey Archive Press through NetGalley.  This is the second book in the Alps Trilogy but this book can be read as a stand alone.  It was written in German and first published in 2010; this English version has been translated by Donal McLaughlin

My Review:
Behind the StationThis story takes place about thirty-five years ago in a small Romansh-speaking Alpine village.  The unnamed child narrator and his brother are allowed to roam the village without any intense supervision or over-programming; this is free range parenting at its finest.  The boy treats us to all of the pleasures, innocence and adventures of childhood.  We are told about the variety of interesting characters that inhabit this small village, from Giascep the seller of nails, to Alexei the hairdresser, to the boy’s aunt who runs the local restaurant.

The prose is very simple with short sentences that form paragraphs that each read like a small story or a vignette.  The narrative is basically a series of stories from a year in the boy’s life; it seemed to me that the boy is about 8 or 9 years old, but he never gives his exact age.  The boy tells us a few stories, for example, about his pet rabbits and his eager anticipation of the doe having baby rabbits.  When the doe finally produces twelve babies, the boys can’t help but touch the babies and hold them.  When they babies disappear they are told, much to their horror, that the mother ate the babies because she caught the scent of the boys on her babies.  From that point on the boy is afraid to touch any baby, whether it be bunny or human for fear that the mother might consume its offspring.

One of the aspects that I liked most about the book is the close-knit relationship between the boys and their family.  The boys roam around the village day after day and cause all sorts of ruckus, but they always stick together and never fight with each other.  They are also very close to their grandparents, “Nonno” and “Nonna”;  Nonno makes rakes for a living and only has 7.5 fingers because the others got caught in his band saw.  One of the funniest scenes in the book is when the boy unexpectedly visits his grandmother and finds her standing naked in her kitchen–it’s quite an awkward moment for them both and although he knows he should look away he just can’t.

The other aspect of the book that is humorous yet demonstrates the purity and innocence of childhood is the boy’s observations about religion.  Although Nonno and Nonna are devout Catholics who go to church every week, the boys’ parents do not make them go to mass every Sunday.  This horrifies Nonno who is afraid that they boys will turn into heathens.  The boy isn’t really sure what goes on at Mass or what it means, but he is hoping that if he puts some holy water into his old dog’s water bowl that he will live a little longer.  When the boy does once make it to mass he has some interesting observations about the ritual.  He calls the communion wafer a “cookie” and the wine “schnapps” and is pretty sure that the priest’s incense burner is used for holding lit cigarettes.

Camenish has written a delightful and humorous novella which captures the innocence, fun and simplicity of childhood and of village life that can be universally appreciated.

 

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella