“The Alp”, published by Dalkey Archive in 2014, is the first part of Arno Camenisch’s “alpine” trilogy, with part two, “Behind The Station” being published in 2015 and the final instalment “Last Last Orders” due for release in the coming months.
Originally written in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German, this is a very short novel, set in the Swiss Alps, on a single property, in the Surselva District, one of the few regions that is mainly Romansh speaking.The book is set over a single summer;
Shoulder to shoulder, peak after peak rises, marking a border, as if – on the other side of this great border – there was nothing else. (p39)
Isolated, our main protagonists are unnamed, they are simply known as the dairyman, swineherd, farmhand and cowherd. They live in the alpine region over summer with a number of other named characters coming into and out of their sphere. The book is written in distant factual detached prose, but it is through these small factual vignettes and anecdotes that the characters slowly become human;
The sun gradually warms the humid, clear air and the last scraps of white cloud vanish. The swineherd removes the cowpats from the yard with the manure shovel and tips them into the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow has a handle missing and its flat tire squeaks. (p14)
Through these seemingly detached vignettes, a whole canvas of rural life, slowly being encroached upon by the tourist industry, comes into view. The four simple lives are juxtaposed against this outside world;
The sun casts the shadow of the photographer from tourist information onto the dirty slabs outside the hut. The flies buzz around his fisherman’s hat. The hut door opens and in the doorway stands the dairyman in his flowery herdsman’s shirt, with his red cheeks and red socks and red laces in his boots. His boots are shining with milking grease. The magnificent head of hair beneath his decorated hat is dripping. He wipes his hand on the seat of his trousers and offers it to the photographer with the camera bags around his neck, and a tripod. With a well-aimed kick, the dairyman chases the goat down from the wooden bench with the engraved plaque outside the hut, then calls the farmhand. The farmhand appears in the doorway with the cheese knife in his hand. His hands are full so he can’t come, he says, and the two herders are off somewhere. The two herders, in their overalls, are lying on their stomachs on the hill above the hut and can hear the dairyman running around the hut and cowshed, cursing them, while alongside the tripod, now set up, complete with camera, its fat lens focused on the mountain backdrop, the photographer unfolds the tourist information leaflet on alpine costumes. (p16-17)
The hints of nostalgia, as the area moves from dairy, and cheese production, pig and sheep farming, to tourism, are kept to slight references; “They have it good these days.”
Through the simple factual paragraphs, that may not even be linear, the reader becomes slowly immersed in their isolated world, outside of dairy work, swine or sheep keeping, is there anything else? This stark prose brings to the fore this isolation, and the seemingly insignificant events slowly build a character study of uneducated men, simple labourers, their loneliness and seclusion. Are these forgotten, insignificant people, individuals merely eking out an existence?
It is the contemplative prose that enriches this book and gives the landscape a much broader perspective than simply using a word count. The expansiveness of the valley, the ruggedness of the Alps, the remoteness being captured through the meditative use of language.
The four main characters, due to their lowly positions have been reduced to functions, not even having names and at times, especially early in the work, they are indistinguishable, however, slowly we see moments of tenderness, humility and humanity shining through the bravado and brutality. Finding an old discarded book and contemplative reading, or lying in meadows observing the clouds, as a reader you do not know what these men are thinking but you do know that their characters are more complex than the simple functions they perform.
Swiss writer Arno Camenisch, apparently writes in both German and Romansh and it would be intriguing to know how much of this work is in each language, is the modern encroaching upon the traditional in the presentation of this work? Not simply through changes where tourism is taking over the traditional lifestyle but the German language slowly infiltrating the region. The Census of 2000 showing that of the 21,231 residents of the Surselva District, 59.4% speak Romansh and 34.5% German.
A short contemplative book, which expertly captures the isolation and remoteness of the region and its inhabitants, a grand sweeping canvas where the offered picture is only a snippet of the grander image. A work that sets up further exploration of the area in the later titles, the second, “Behind The Station” I will look at here in the coming days.