Why “I Am the Brother of XX” by Fleur Jaeggy shouldn’t win the 2018 Best Translated Book Award

Jaeggy

When I went to school – albeit a long time ago – first we were taught the alphabet, I can’t remember those dim dark ages, however I think I knew ABC before I started formal schooling, I’d ask my mum to confirm but that would result in an extended telephone conversation, in this world of instant gratification, short attention spans and meta fiction I simply cannot afford the time for such a trite confirmation.

Once the whole class had mastered the alphabet, we moved onto words, Apple, Bee, Cat, etc. Again, we waited until everybody had mastered these basics, you know the drill, cater for the average, don’t get too far ahead, or too far behind, that could upset the whole education system.

Once we knew how to spell a few basic words, we moved onto sentences, now this is where things became really tricky, you had to string words together. I was taught that a sentence contained a number of words. It would have been much later in my schooling, once I had learned words more difficult than basic animals and fruits, I believe I was taught that a sentence contains a subject and predicate and consists of a main clause or one or more subordinate clauses. Unfortunately I didn’t keep my school books from the 1960’s, they could have proven a useful reference tool fifty years later….Here is ant and bee and a red dog playing ball…

This was back in the dim dark ages of being taught a language, where nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, clauses, tense and, heaven forbid, punctuation were taught as part of our comprehension.

Grammar – wtf is that?

Why my schooling as a long introduction? Because. Fleur Jaeggy’s “I Am The Brother of XX”, translated by Gini Alhadeff, contains many. One. Word. Sentences. ONE. WORD.

No bicycles, and again, clearly marked, At any time. Ever. Unnecessary noises. It is a timeless quiet zone. And that is greatly reassuring. Even voices seem to become muted. Maybe passers-by don’t quarrel. Maybe it’s an almost happy earth. Iosif looks at the towers. The fireman’s boat, with paddles resembling fans made of water, glides by. In the dark sky the flight of dark birds. On the opposite short, large warehouses, depots. And in direct line of sight, the towers. It is what Iosif sees, the Twin Towers. They were, once. (from ‘Negde’ pp27-28)

If sentences were meant to be one word then there wouldn’t be the word “sentences” would there? Everything would suffice as “word” wouldn’t it?

Back to the digital age and short attention spans, obviously this style of book made up of twenty-one short stories and running to only 133 pages (these are short short stories), appeals to those who struggle to concentrate beyond the length of an iPhone screen. Short dark tales that you can skim in the time it takes to log onto Tinder. The traction and hype on social media when this book was released reached fever pitch, 280 characters the ideal medium to spruik the wares of a bleak dark collection. “This. Book. Is. Sooo. Brill.”

Almost “gothic” in style, with class and language well beyond any “Twilight” series, this books deals with haunting, disturbing themes. Just when you think every story is going to deal with mystical, ghost themes, your ideas get turned on their head and an unsettling tale from left field comes from along to push you further into the mire.

When I talk my sister pays too much attention. She watches me. Maybe she is writing my story, as long as I am not dead yet like my parents. I’ve always wondered whether one of them might have died because of her. Then I think that parents always die because of their children. One always dies because of someone else. I don’t know if it’s correct to say ‘because of’. But one dies for others. On behalf of others, might be more correct. (from “I Am the Brother of XX” pg13)

As Susan Jacoby advises us in her new release “Why Baseball Matters’, because this is a highly relevant title when discussing translated fiction from Switzerland, “…conversation itself has become one of the many cultural casualties of the computer era.” That probably explains why Jaeggy’s stories contain little, if no, conversation. If it does appear it is muted like the rest of the book;

Old age, she said, is horrible. It’s all horrible, I’d tell her. With a kind of glee. I tried to convince her that it’s all truly horrible (at that time our lives weren’t bad at all) and I meant it. Then her eyes radiated happiness and years went by. Swift. (from ‘The Aseptic Room’ pg50)

Time for a quick reference check, something that I can find on the internet, and something that is a paragraph long, don’t want to waste too much time researching my subject matter, there are Facebook notifications calling my attention, cat photos to scroll through. According to Wikipedia after “completing her studies in Switzerland, Jaeggy went to live in Rome, where she met Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard”. This collection shows a poetic style, could it be the influence of those writers (?), which allows the reader to build mental images well beyond what is presented on the page.

It had been snowing. For years, it seemed. In a desolate town in Brandenburg a boy shouts a Christmas sermon through a bullhorn. The town has few inhabitants. The houses are surrounded by a wall. On the wall the photograph of a German shepherd. Ich wache. I watch. It looks like a ‘Wanted’ poster. The photograph of the owner is missing. One watches, the other incites. The moment anyone walked by the wall a fierce barking was heard. There are no shops. (from ‘ The Hanging Angel’ pg 108)

Susan Sontag is quoted on the cover of the And Other Stories publication, “A wonderful, brilliant, savage writer”, obviously that brilliant and wonderful that it has only taken at least fourteen years to get these stories into English? (Sontag passed away in 2004 so I’m taking a punt that her quote was made prior to her passing).

A collection of dense, dark tales, masterfully sculpted to inhabit and haunt the reader, I believe this is a book that will probably make the shortlist of the Best Translated Book Award, simply because of the carry on that I noticed when this book was released, you’d think she’d won the Nobel Peace Prize!!! Published by And Other Stories in the United Kingdom and New Directions in the United States there’s no excuse for not joining in the “Women in Translation” movement and grabbing a copy of this. Instead of twiddling your thumbs, you could read a story whilst your apps are updating to the latest versions. Wonderful. Brilliant. Savage. Pity I was getting increased blood pressure from these clipped sentences.

Advertisements

Behind The Station – Arno Camenisch (translated by Donal McLaughlin)

behindStation

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.

The Alp – Arno Camenisch (translated by Donal McLaughlin)

theAlp

“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.

Surselva_Trun

By Adrian Michael (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.