Earlier in the week I reviewed Swiss writer Arno Camenisch’s “The Alp”, the first part of his “alpine” trilogy that was released in English in 2014. The second part “Behind The Station” was also published by Dalkey Archive in 2015 and three years later the final installment in the trilogy “Last Last Orders” is about to hit the shelves.
Unlike the third person distant prose of “The Alp”, where the four main characters are the nameless dairyman, swineherd, farmhand and cowherd, this book follows the actions of a pair of young brothers in the alpine village, using the personal narrative of one of the young children.
Like the first instalment, “Behind The Station” was originally written in both Rhaeto-Romanic and German, and this work has a number of references throughout to the Romansh language, our protagonist not understanding German.
We take a short cut. After the highest pylon, the smallest, we lift the bar and jump down into the deep snow. The man in the chair lift behind us goes crazy. He waves his hands, shouts and curses in German, but we don’t understand that here. Here, we understand only Romansh, and not always that either. (p77)
There are also recurring images from instalment one, a crucifix with a hand missing, a radio with a bent aerial, have these items made their way from the alpine farms into the village or are they coincidentally similar? This use of imagery allows the short work to have a broader reach than simply the story of young boys growing up in a village.
My father asks have we fed the bunny rabbits. We say we’ll feed the bunnies in a minute, just need to do something first. My father says, we need to clean the hutch out again soon too. We nod. My father looks strict and shows us his finger. On his finger is white paint. He’s wearing overalls. His overalls are white with splashes of paint. My father’s a painter. On his shoes are splashes of paint. He’s got soap for that that we’re not allowed to use. Hands off, my father says, it’s poisonous, not for the likes of you. Drink that ad you’ll end up with a hole in your stomach. We don’t want holes in our stomachs so we keep our hands off. (p8-9)
It is through this simple, subtle, gentle language that the small village’s introspection comes to the fore. And we see this tiny community through the innocent eyes of a child;
Place on record, my brother says. By the time we’re through the whole village, we’ve counted twenty-five houses, eight hay barns, one car garage, one motorbike garage, the station with the post office, two fountains with the year on them, Nonno’s workshop and storeroom, a phone box, Mena’s kiosk, and four refuse containers. When we reach the other end, we go through the village again, counting the people who live in the village. We can’t count Marionna from the village shop who doesn’t live in the village and not Toni Maissen either who stands at the counter in the station but doesn’t live in the village either. There are forty-one or forty-two residents. We don’t know whether Bollock Tini is one person or two. We need to find out. There are three restaurants in the village, the Crusch Alva where Silvana lives, the station restaurant at the centre, which is closed, and the Helvezia. The Helvezia is my aunt’s. There’s Marionna’s village shop, Gion Bi’s Usego store, Giacasep’s screws shop, the bakery and the hairdresser’s. (p18)
Whilst “The Alp” presented the events of a single summer, high in the mountains with cows, sheep, pigs and goats, this book occurs over a single winter where the day to day activities, like riding a bike or shovelling snow are the main motivators. However, it is not through the actual physical events that the richness of this work is revealed. Using the innocent eyes of youth the book highlights prospects for the future, although similar to “The Alp” where a lament for loss of a simple lifestyle and language is subtle, here is comes more to the fore.
We also have the social implications of living in a small village, the provincial politics and the hierarchy and influence of the various players:
The band is practicing marching. They’re practicing for Sunday and are standing in uniform on the village street. The flag bearer’s at the front and right behind him is Pieder, the conductor. He has a proper conductor’s baton with a cork handle. As soon as he swings the baton and says march, they all begin to move in the direction of the Helvezia and start playing. The musicians are wearing beautiful uniforms. The trousers are dark green with an orange stripe at the side, the jackets are orange with golden button and dark green brushes on the shoulders. The musicians don’t have hats, not even Pieder, who would’ve had the nicest hat with huge white feathers. It’s not as if we’re Indians, Gion Baretta said, we’re not putting the hats on. No one wanted to put the uniforms on either, no one likes them, we almost have to wear them though if the artist from the next village has already paid for them, cost a fortune after all, he says to my aunt. He’d offered to pay for the uniforms if he also got to choose them so of course everyone agreed, saying, he’s a nice guy, it won’t be that bad, and now we’ve this disgrace on our hands. He’ll not be involved very much longer though, and once he’s kicked the bucket we’ll go back to our beautiful old uniforms, with the caps too, that is, the works; the way it should be. (p60)
This section showing how the innocent eyes of the child sees the uniforms as beautiful, but through internal influences moves to “disgrace” with the old now being “beautiful”. Progress and the resistance of such, always bubbling along quietly in delicate ways.
Another subtle work from Arno Camenisch, peeling back more layers of a remote area on our planet, similar to “The Alp” we have another short contemplative book, expertly capturing 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. This work being another piece of the bigger puzzle, through two books we have the workers and now the children, next up the drinkers!!! I can’t wait for the final installment.