I hear that soccer/football fans are pretty excited about Switzerland these days. (Sorry everyone, I haven’t been keeping up with the world of FIFA.) In a literary match-up against Honduras, though, its chance at a win feels a lot smaller. Neither country is really one of the literary world’s power-houses, but in this match Honduras brings to the table the potent prose of Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose Senselessness is pretty remarkable.
“I am not complete in the mind,” begins Moya’s narrator. And no, he most certainly is not: he is caustic, sex-obsessed, unstable, and at least a little bit insane. If you go with it, though, if you let his sentences pull you along for pages with their paranoid urgency, you’re in for a hell of a ride. He is an irritable, obsessive atheist who has gotten himself caught up in the affairs of the Catholic Church as it fights to bring to light the atrocities committed by the unnamed country’s power-hungry military. His rage and angst spiral into what he calls an “expanding maelstrom of paranoia.” And, whether you believe in his conspiracies or think he’s lost his mind, it’s very compelling. An excellent (and excellently unreliable) narrator, a great story and a satisfying ending: this is Moya’s hat-trick.
Now comes Switzerland, with Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover. From the start, it looks grim. A melodramatic title and some pretty awful jacket copy leave me unenthused, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Which is my own mistake, really.
The narrator’s mother starts out the novel waist-deep in a lake, frantically shouting her lover’s name (“Edwin!”) across the water. Her former lover, once a poor musician and now the richest man in the country, lives in a mansion across the water and never even thinks about this woman, who he was involved with for a couple of months in his youth. She, on the other hand, obsesses over him, is possessed by the thought of him, hears the wind whisper his name to her all day long. I’d say that this is still a better love story than Twilight, except that a sad and confused woman who shrieks “Edw-!” into the empty night actually sounds an awful lot like Twilight. (I take full responsibility for the fact that, by bringing up the T-word, I am probably fulfilling the literary equivalent of Godwin’s law.) There’s some big, over-the-top Freudian thing going on here; her father is a taciturn, cantankerous control freak who treats her like dirt, and her lover is an insufferable egomaniac who also treats her like dirt. And I just can’t bring myself to care about any of it.
On top of this, the narrator speaks in this bizarre, inverted Yoda-speak (“Pushing and shoving they’d be to get to her,” and “flat as a pancake everywhere was”) and uses em-dashes in baffling and excessive ways.
Stylistic weirdnesses aside, My Mother’s Lover suffers from a lack of empathy. Moya’s characters are not likable (far from it, in fact), but I cared what happened to them. With Widmer’s, I didn’t. At all. And so this novel—supposed to be a tragedy of unrequited love across a backdrop of war and loss—fell flat.
The only major redeeming factor is Widmer’s harrowing and believable portrayal of the mother’s descent into madness. But it isn’t enough to make up for the huge gap in style, impact and appeal that separates it and Senselessness. Between the two, there’s no comparison. Honduras 3, Switzerland 0.
Hannah Chute translates literature from Russian and French. She is currently a master’s student in the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Studies program. She is exceptionally bad at soccer.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch._
My Father’s Book by Urs Widmer, translated from the German by Donal McLaughlin and published by Seagull Books
This piece is by translator, critic, and BTBA judge, Tess Lewis.
Urs Widmer, woefully underappreciated in the English-speaking world, is one of Switzerland’s most prominent and prolific writers. And My Father’s Book is one of Widmer’s very best. A fictionalized biography of his own father, Walter Widmer, this novel is by turns heart-wrenching and laugh-out loud funny. Heady, intellectual passages alternate with slap-stick comedy in this exploration of how much we can know even those closest to us.
The narrator’s father, Karl Widmer, is an unworldly, intellectually voracious man whose fiery temper is balanced by his essential good nature and extreme absent-mindedness. He lives primarily through the great works of French literature he translates—Stendhal, Flaubert, Rabelais, Balzac, and Diderot, whom he treasures above all others—and dies in his fifties of a heart ailment exacerbated by a life of chain-smoking. Karl is an inveterate idealist who venerates the Encyclopédistes and the rationalism of the dix-huitième. He becomes a Communist for a time, but is too impolitic for the Party. What he loves, he loves ardently. He only occasionally registers the fact that his beloved wife’s tendency to withdraw is a sign of unhappiness, and always too late.
According to tradition in Karl’s remote ancestral mountain village, on his twelfth birthday he was given a book for him to record each day’s events throughout his life. On the day after his father dies, the narrator learns to his horror that his mother had already disposed of Karl’s book along with mountains of manuscripts and unpaid bills. The narrator, who had only glanced through it the night before, resolves to rewrite his father’s book, now in the readers’ hands. Widmer not only recalls the events and circumstances of Karl’s life, he is able to render a sense of the man’s internal life by quoting imagined passages from the imaginary book.
As the Germans advance through Europe, Karl, until now unfit for service, is called up along “with a few other oldish men with weak hearts” to protect Basel from the Wehrmacht. In the barracks at night Karl dutifully makes his daily entries in which mundane events alternate with vivid meditations on things literary.
‘19.5.40 Letter from Clara,’ my father wrote, once he’d saved the quill from the hobnailed boots of a comrade racing to the toilet. ‘Kitchen duty for insubordination (the corporal asked me—it was to do with the dismantled gunlock I wasn’t able to put together again—whether I thought he was stupid and I said yes). The Germans still aren’t here yet. General mobilization nonetheless. —In the ancien régime, ladies vaginae could speak too. Not just their mouths. Often the gentlemen would sit with their countesses and ducal lovers, having tea, and chatting to one another about an especially good bon mot of Madame de Pompadour or the Pope’s last bull, while, simultaneously, from beneath their skirts—many-layered mountains of material—came a chattering and sniggering, the sense of which they didn’t quite catch. At any rate, there was almost constant chat from down there. The many different materials muffled the voices, but people sometimes thought they would hear their names, without knowing what the braying laughter beneath all the other skirts was all about. —The light! The light of the dix-huitième, you don’t get light like that nowadays.
My Father’s Book is a boisterous, expansive novel, an encapsulation of twentieth century Swiss life through an idiosyncratic and highly concentrating prism. This sense of breadth comes not only from the contrast of Karl’s engagement in politics and his ludicrous stint as a soldier with his wife’s extreme introversion, but also from his appetite for life and the arts, which Widmer evokes beautifully. The sheer artistry of the writing in this novel alone would be deserving of the Best Translated Book Award, but in addition Donal McLaughlin’s translation is pitch-perfect, capturing the various registers and tonalities of Widmer’s prose and, most difficult of all, the many shades of his humor.
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