They had offered me refuge in this best of all worlds and the thankless foreigner was ridiculing their philosophy of life.
Ridiculing? Tearing it to shreds in an extended – though very eloquent – rant is how I’d describe it.
They say first impressions count, and the welcoming Swiss official certainly didn’t make a good one on the young girl, who had recently fled with her family from a communist dictatorship. You don’t need all those twiddly bits here, said the official, stripping the diacritics from her Slovakian surname, as well as removing the feminine ending, a process the narrator refers to as a mutilation. This is the seed of a persistent rage and a lack of bonding with the country which offers her family a safe haven in the late 1960s. Preferring the rubbish strewn streets and the effusive, chaotic personalities of home, she lambasts everything Swiss: the cleanliness of the streets, child care, the perceived emotional coldness, arrogance and self-satisfaction of the native people, their business manner in financial matters, the order resulting from the willingness to use their freedom to comply with rules and regulations.
“If only an earthquake would come and bury their rules and schedules,” I whispered to Mara (a fellow immigrant).
“Even earthquakes are predictable here,” she warned me.”
Nothing escapes her withering assessment. Not even the language. There is some wit, with the recent immigrant confused by the order not to discuss Swiss cheese: Sprich kein Käse, literally don’t talk cheese, being the idiom for don’t talk nonsense. But as her linguistic prowess improves, it is politeness that infuriates her:
Instead of ‘close the window’, they said, ‘Sorry, would you mind, could I trouble you? Would you be so kind as to please close the window?’ … What linguistic luxury abounded here! For even prosaic matters, people indulged in a courtly language rich in subjunctives. Back home, there was an unseemly extension of the private into the public; here, officialese ate its way into the private.
She decides that speaking Swiss German is toadying to the locals; she will stick to Hochsprache. It is this act of individualism that ironically leads to her future profession, interpreting, the essence of which lies in the eradication of one’s own personality.
Her experiences as an interpreter are interwoven with the complaints of her younger self. Here she forms a bridge between the Swiss professionals (doctors, lawyers, psychologists, bureaucrats) and other immigrants; some with genuine trauma, others chancers and villains. Of course, our narrator still has scathing observations to share (particularly about the insincerity of psychologists), but it is through the hardships of others that she comes to reassess her own and concludes 1) it could have been a lot worse, and 2) she was fortunate to land in a country that gave her the opportunity to make something of herself.
The turning point comes towards the end of her personal outpourings. Hard to say whether this is before or after she becomes an interpreter because of the novel’s structure, but the episode finally makes her realise the value of the Swiss way: rule of law, clarity, perseverance, word and deed as a symbiotic partnership.
This new mature outlook is evidenced in the interpreting anecdotes, which for all the heartbreak and misery they contain, provide a welcome distraction from the voice of the younger narrator. Not that all her grievances are without foundation (although most result simply from culture shock), but this timeline is a telling, not a showing, and somewhat wearing in places. Completely the opposite of the second timeline, and now I’m wondering if that is on purpose. To demonstrate that the mature narrator has improved not only her attitude but also her writing style? Regardless, The Thankless Foreigner not only provides a penetrating insight into the mind of one extremely prickly customer but is also proof of the tolerance of the Swiss. Some of the comments are so stinging, not every country would allow the novel’s publication, never mind award the 2012 Swiss Literary Prize.
Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal
THE THANKLESS FOREIGNER
by Irena Brežná
Translated from the German by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Published by Seagull Books (2022)
This review first appeared on lizzysiddall.wordpress.com German Literature Month 2023.
December 2023 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Lizzy Siddal is a British bibliophile and book blogger of sixteen years. She publishes her reviews at Lizzy’s Literary Life (Volume Two) where she co-hosts Reading Independent Publishers Month each February and German Literature Month each November.
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