Arno Camenisch and Dana Grigorcea are two leading voices for young Swiss literature. They both enjoy a good reception with the audience, and this is also because of their communicative appeal. On the other hand, at a first glance they have few literary affinities in common. While Dana Grigorcea grew up in Romania and only arrived in Zurich after her graduation in Brussels and elsewhere, Arno Camenisch is a Swiss national who spent his youth in a mountain valley in the Grisons. His home village, Tavanasa, is in a region where the boundaries are fluid between the Rhaeto-Romance dialect and German.
In his second novel Behind the Station (2014), Camenisch reminiscences about this creative hotchpotch of languages and the countless “Grüschs” (German: “Geräusche”, or “noises”) which the high-spirited young rascal listened to intensely. His book also realistically blends regional dialect and traces of Romansh in German by reproducing them onomatopoeically. So, we find “Pietigott” (German: “Behüte Gott”, or “God forbid!”) and “orvuar” (Au revoir). This creates a lively narrative tone that also makes the past and carefree childhood days become audible.
Now, for a change of scene: a young woman travels with friends by car across Bucharest. Dana Grigorcea describes the scene in her latest, second novel Das primäre Gefühl der Schuldlosigkeit (2015). The woman has returned from Switzerland to work here in her home town. Due to a setback, she suddenly has plenty of time to rediscover the city of her childhood. She encounters old songs and jokes; she remembers the childish light-heartedness and recounts cheerful anecdotes, yet below the surface they conceal a tangible, dark episode.
Dana Grigorcea and Arno Camenisch evidently confront a typical theme for young Swiss literature: the recovery of childhood experience. This theme forms a common bond between them; and they share a second, indirect connection. In their poetical works, they bridge a linguist-cultural divide that today still has a profound influence on their personal biographies. This is already expressed in their debut works with surprising effect.
In Sez Ner (2009), Camenisch develops a poetical simultaneous action by narrating a story in parallel in Romansh (on the left-hand pages) and in German (on the right-hand pages). The same story is told twice, yet the two versions are differentiated – and what is more, they accompany and complement each other. The story is narrated in short bursts of prose that describe four Alpine herdsmen who live and work for a summer on Alp Stavonas at the foot of Mount Piz Sez Ner. It is beautiful in the mountains, but also steep and perilous, as Camenisch evokes Alpine self-consciousness, which essentially has long been superseded by modern ways of living. Poetically and with refreshing irony, he averts the old myths of mountain life.
Mythical references also play a key role in Dana Grigorcea’s debut novel Baba Rada (2011). Set in the Romanian Danube delta, an impoverished, marginal region, Baba Rada yearns for the happiness of her albino daughter with a concoction of schnapps and magic. But a mysterious terrorist causes confusion.
The novel is difficult to grasp because it is constantly transforming. The “magnificent barbarianism” is presented as a wild mix of fables, rumours and coarseness that only meets with happiness by hearsay. A fine mist lays over everything, casting things in twilight and they only gain some definition thanks to the lively language. Grigorcea’s burlesque storytelling emerges from the Danube delta like Baba Rada’s belches, “when I have drunk this Russian, alcoholic shampoo.”
Sez Ner like Baba Rada are genuine masterworks with ruses aplenty, and they demonstrate the poetic exuberance of both writers. Dana Grigorcea and Arno Camenisch have risked something, by capturing on the one hand the myths of their homelands and, on the other, the linguistic-cultural differences with delightful poise and originality.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright