Four characters, identified only by their occupations, spend the Swiss summer working, drinking, brooding, and sleeping. Around them, as things fall apart, tourist gawk, soldiers train, and what passes for progress looms. That sums up this very short novel, a series of vignettes translated from Swiss-German and the lesser known language of Rhaeto-Romanic, itself an amalgamation of ancient bits of pre-Roman contact tongues, as well as what thousands of years have created where Teutonic and Italian varieties meet, where the Alps isolate a few to carry on today.
These few, in Arno Camenisch’s spare telling, create their own hierarchy. Beckett might have conjured up such a quartet, and the Derry-born, Glasgow-raised translator Donal McLaughlin conveys the low-key happenings in suitably stringent, spare, sour prose. Neither Camenisch nor McLaughlin appear to pander to crowd pleasing, and they favor a detached if exacting take on this setting.
This combination of detail and distance creates a hermetic feel within stoic scenes. People, others with proper names, come and go, but they tend to remain rather sketchy, glimpsed rather than known more deeply. This stance reflects the attitude of the four main characters, who must remain at the foot of Sez Ner, the original title of this novella. Translating this into a more generic Alp, McLaughlin may have lost the specificity a Swiss reader would bring to this place, but he keeps its resonance for a wider audience, likely far less familiar with humdrum reality than the romance this setting suggests.
Among the anonymous or symbolic protagonists, the dairyman, who guards his cheese wheels like “ingots” in his home, in a bottom drawer, dominates. The farmhand takes refuge in a book which appeals to Catholic sentiment, welcoming manners towards visitors, and local pride. The swineherd makes an excursion to a Stone Man cairn, but his motive and his action there remain mysterious. The cowherd puts him, like a Beckett figure, with a lot of bother, and calls his hapless dog “the dope”.
What saves this from tedium or insignificance, over about 75 pages, is the manner Camenisch chooses to relate the everyday lives these men lead. Rather than chapters, the book divides into paragraphs. No breaks or editorial framework are given, so the reader plunges into the situation as it is. As McLaughlin renders the Swiss-German and I assume from the italicized fragments untranslated the Surselva dialect of Romansh itself, in all its half-understood orthographic and linguistic novelty for English-speaking readers, the impact is muted, yet sustained, by the tone.
Many paragraphs could bloom into their own tales, but they are cut off or reduced to essentials. A cinematic precision stages what we are allowed to see. For example, here is a paragraph in full:
With their high-gloss leaflets in their hands, the day-trippers are standing around the cheese kettle, beside the tourist guide from tourist information, who is holding a red flag with a white cross. The dairyman, with a dripping skimmer in his right hand, welcomes them and explains things. The cameras flash and the guide nods as if he knows all this already and a lot more besides. The flock of guests, bunched close together, marvel at the demonstration, not realizing that outside, beneath the steamed-up windows, their rucksacks are being ransacked by the herders.
It’s a hard luck life, and the road which cuts down the firs by its construction, the golf course mooted for a slope, the giant phone which although it does not work well, signals change: these markers point ahead from this novel’s vague setting. It could be anytime in the past 50 years, in such remoteness.
What endures, Camenisch suggests rather than emphasizes, are the harsh lessons people in these realms have learned to their gain or loss. “Morality is a frost, says Luis. And frost arrives early here, and stops late. The first frost burns any green shoots/ It clears the hillside. What remains has always been there. You can depend on frost.”
The ambiguity of that final line sums up this 2009 novella well, the first in a alpine trilogy to be released in McLaughlin’s translations by Dalkey Archive Press.