This is the second volume in English of Arno Camenisch’s Alpine trilogy, preceded by The Alp and concluded by Last Last Orders. The trilogy, set in a Grisons / Graubünden valley, has made Camenisch hugely popular, both in his native Switzerland and beyond. The first book in the trilogy he wrote simultaneously in both Swiss German and the regional Romansh. Camenisch continues to write in German and Romansh, but The Alp is the only instance when he produced two versions of the same text. Amazingly, the trilogy was swiftly and well translated into English by Donal McLaughlin for Dalkey Archive Press. Camenisch has since published six more books, still awaiting English translation.
Although set in a remote part of Europe, the stories of the Alpine trilogy have both immediate and universal appeal, and part of their attraction is Camenisch’s ability to preserve in writing a way of life that may well be vanishing, and a minor language that has no great body of literature to preserve it. I grew up in neighbouring Austria, not far from the area Camenisch writes about, and these stories have a special appeal for me. However, no previous familiarity with the area is required to enjoy them, although in my case it definitely influenced how I read them. The specific setting is matched by a vivid mode of oral storytelling, which is colourful, readable, relatable and transnational.
Behind the Station is told from the perspective of two brothers growing up in a village of forty-one inhabitants (possibly forty-two; more explanation would be a spoiler) in the Surselva valley. Related in short, concise paragraphs, the novel conjures up the essence of childhood, when the mundane attains the aura of the mythical, and apparently unimportant characters come into their own. But behind the children’s perspective, and the abundance of hilarity, another story of fragility and loss begins to take shape. Camenisch is a master of the art of elliptical storytelling: the apparently idyllic village life is governed by strict hierarchies, simultaneously appealing and suffocating.
Camenisch’s books are great reads, but they also lend themselves particularly well to being read out loud; indeed, part of their success is due to Camenisch’s wonderful skills as a performer.
There is, however, another reason why his work is so engaging: his stories, while fixed to a particular location, are anything but parochial; they succeed in immortalising a specific way of life while asking universal questions about belonging and about the need to escape and explore.
Camenisch’s most recent novel Der letzte Schnee (‘The Last Snow’), not yet published in English, also transcends local concerns. In fact, it is best read in the global context of climate change. In the novel, two ski-lift attendants, painted in recognisably Beckettian colours, pass the time waiting for snow, which, in this region, has become ‘rarer than cocaine’.
The Riveter is delighted to be able to present an extract from this startling book.
Reviewed by Andrea Capovilla
BEHIND THE STATION
Written by Arno Camenisch
Translated by Donal McLaughlin
Published by Dalkey Archive Press (2015)
Andrea Capovilla is Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature and Culture (IBC).
Photo of Arno Camenisch © Janosch_Abel