This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
Interview by Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor
The Alp by Arno Camenisch is the first book in the award-winning trilogy about vanishing life in a remote and rural part of the Swiss Alps, in a hamlet of Sez Nez, on the slopes of the mountain of the same name. It is set within one season on a small, isolated summer farm. The four unnamed characters are a dairyman, his farmhand, a cowherd and a swineherd, who all live and work in close proximity with livestock – but this is no Heidi. The lives on the mountain pasture are dangerous, solitary and full of cruelty; yet Arno Carmenisch’s description of his characters is full of affection and humour and he clearly has a brilliant ear for their voices and the sounds of the setting. The novel has just been published by Dalkey Archive Press. Two more books from the trilogy will follow in English. These and other Arno’s books have also been translated into many languages.
The Alp was written both in German and in Romansch. Why did you decide to write it in both and how did you do it? Is Romansch your first language?
I wrote the first book in German and then after it was finished I wrote it again in Romansch. The original book is bilingual and published in a bilingual form. I felt that it was important to write it in Romansch (or Sursilvan, the most widely spoken regional variety of Romansch) as I was setting the book in that small language area. I think that small languages have to open themselves to the world. I grew up in two languages. Romansch is the language of my heart and German is my literary language. I speak Romansch with friends and family. I believe that you make love and die in the language of your heart. When I write in Romansch for me it is like seeing a tree, when I write in German I can see the whole wood. The difference, for me, is between being close, or being at a certain distance. I feel more empowered when writing in German.
The Alp presents the life in the mountains as harsh, monotonous and cruel. Is it the world you know yourself?
I got to know this world as a child and I lived the life on an alp over a few summers. I felt that people were unhappy there. They were confined to this one enclosed area for the whole summer; they could not leave. The weather was harsh and the work physically very hard. Despite the illusion of space one associates with mountains, being on an alp has a claustrophobic element. But this is my subjective view of this world and I am sure that an ethnographer would disagree with my version, name things differently.
Indeed, The Alp could almost be described as a documentary novel. Was it your intention to document the disappearing life in the Alps or did you set off to write something more universal?
I really was writing about people and their interaction. I was interested in the closeness of people and nature, in the harsh conditions of their lives, in living with the oppressive presence of the mountains, and the feeling of being encaged by the Alps, like being on a ship. I grew up in Tavanasa (in canton Grisons/Graubünden), in a village of 50 people. For half of the year there you don’t see the sun as it is always hiding behind the mountains. The novel could be described as a docu-fiction, but it is a very subjective view of this world. My last novel in the trilogy, Last Last Orders, is about a group of people talking in a village bar – people always react to it as though it is set in their own village.
‘The cheese is swelling. During the night, the stone weights crash to the floor, waking everyone. The swineherd and the cowherd carry the over-ripened cheeses through the clear night, across the yard, through the cowshed, to behind the cowshed, and dump them in a slurry. Neither the dairyman nor his farmhand budges to help. They stay where they are in the doorway, their hands in their pockets.’ The Alp is written in small rhythmic and melodic vignettes, with no event taking precedence, but each miniature with its own drama, not dissimilar from flash fiction. Why this interesting, horizontal structure?
I wrote the book in images, in closed scenes, almost like scenes from a film. It is written chronologically, and the full book gives a full picture, like a mosaic. But I also believe that the book is not finished without the reader. The reader’s background plays a role as well in finding a meaning in a book. A book could be different with every reading depending on where the reader is and how the reader thinks.
The rhythm of your prose makes it wonderful to read aloud. You perform your texts in public. Do you write your books with the underlying intention of reading them aloud?
Yes, I love reading out scenes and the sound of the text matters. It varies depending on the language. The sound is stronger and a bit different in Romansch, maybe more musical than in English. I perform various texts a lot and this book renders itself to reading aloud too. I also belong to a Spoken Word ensemble ‘Bern ist überall’, so this aspect of writing is important to me.
Donal McLaughlin’s translation mastered that rhythm of the language very well. How do you work with your translators?
I normally try to work very closely with my translators, to give them a lot of background and information. And in the case of this book, the life of the alp is very specific and it helps to understand the setting.
And to come back to the issue of Romansch. Will you write your future novels in it as well? Do you feel that as a writer you have a role in keeping it alive?
For most people who speak Romansch, the question of their language is not an existential question. Most of them are bilingual, work in German and speak Romansch at home. They are emotionally attached to it though, even young people. I live now in Biel/Bienne, which lies on the language boundary between French and German and it is a bilingual city, but you hear over 140 languages spoken here and it is very enriching to have so many sounds and so many cultures around. Linguistic diversity is good for openness and understanding. I don’t think that my role is to save Romansch – you cannot save a language, a language simply changes, moves. I write more in German then in Romansh: depends a bit on the weather. In the end, it is a question of writing, much more then a question of a language. I translate the pictures or scenes in my head onto paper. Of course, the language itself is really important, too. I’m interested in how people talk. The sound is the soul of the text.
About the editor
Tasja Dorkofikis is editor of PEN Atlas and a freelance editor and publicist. She has previously worked as a publicity director at Random House and Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor for Portobello Books. Tasja divides her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.