Trafika Europe 11 - Swiss Delights

From Swiss German, French, Italian, Romansh & Yenish writers – Michael Fehr, Max Lobe, Leta Semadeni, Ilma Rakusa, Odiel Cornuz, Michel Layaz, Klaus Merz, Noëlle Revaz, Mariella Mehr, Frédéric Pajak, Dana Grigorcea & Matteo Terzaghi

11 Swiss Delights

an online quarterly journal with some of the best new literature from Europe

is a publication of

Trafika Europe ISSN 2472-2138


Editors’ Welcome___________________________________ vi

Michael Fehr

Simeliberg (excerpts)_________________________ 16

Max Lobe

Trinité bantoue (excerpts)_ ____________________ 50

Leta Semadeni

Tamangur (excerpts) + Eleven Poems_ ___________ 72

Ilma Rakusa

A Wider Sea (excerpts)_ _____________________ 108

Odile Cornuz

Terminus (excerpts)_ ________________________ 126

Michel Layaz

My Mother’s Tears (excerpts)_ ________________ 144

Klaus Merz

Eleven Poems______________________________ 172


Noëlle Revaz

The Infinite Book (excerpts)___________________ 186

Mariella Mehr

stoneage__________________________________ 204

Frédéric Pajak

Uncertain Manifesto 3 (excerpts)_ _____________ 246

Dana Grigorcea

An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence (excerpts)_ ___ 278

Matteo Terzaghi

Department of Projections (excerpts)______________ 300

About the Authors & Works_ _______________________ 328 About the Photographs____________________________ 340 Acknowledgments________________________________ 348

And for much more, please see, More Swiss Delights!


TRAFIKA EUROPE 11 - SWISS DELIGHTS Editors’Welcome Contemporary Swiss writing is a kaleidoscope of languages and genres.With four official languages— German, French, Italian and Romansch—numerous dialects, established literary traditions in the three dominant languages, a strong oral tradition in Romansch and a vibrant spoken word scene in every corner of the country, not to mention a rising number of first and second generation immigrants writing in French or German as a second language, Switzerland boasts an astonishingly diverse literary ecosphere. It is impossible to offer anything but a cursory overview of Switzerland’s literary landscape in a single issue, but we hope to entice you to discover some of the most intriguing voices writing in the country today. We’ve concentrated on writers whose work has not yet been translated into English or only minimally so and have tried to reflect the country’s linguistic diversity with our selection of writers in all four of Switzerland’s national languages. These writers also span a wide range of


Trafika Europe 11

genres from experimental fiction through poetry, drama, creative nonfiction, to innovative and idiosyncratic forms of autobiographical writing. Michael Fehr’s Simeliberg is a crime novel of sorts written in spare, startling prose equally inflected by the rhythms of dialect as musical improvisation. Set in a remote mountain valley, the telegraphic prose follows the implication of a local council leader in bizarre backwoods villainy. Not only an accomplished writer of poetry and prose in German, Leta Semadeni is also one of the most prominent contemporary representatives of Romansch lyric and storytelling. A continuous bilingualism marks her poetry , which she writes in the Vallader dialect of Romansch and in German. Both her poetry and her prose are firmly grounded in the dramatic landscape of her native canton, Engadin, and we offer you a selection of each. In her novel Tamangur , Semadeni captures the world of a child and a grandmother, both nameless, in a small village in Switzerland, located in a valley full of shadows. Tragedy, unspeakable, incomprehensible, lurks beneath the idyllic surface. The poet, novelist, and critic Ilma Rakusa also


Editors’ Welcome

navigates between several languages. In her book of memory fragments, A Wider Sea , Rakusa remembers the people, places, music, and books that have shaped her. Rakusa spent her childhood and youth in Central Europe in a period of great political and cultural change. She uses recollections of thesetimes toretraceheréducationsentimentale, geographique, intellectuelle, et politique. The gleaming shards of memory in A Wider Sea recall her early years without sentimentality and capture, with great accuracy and nuance, the elusive atmosphere of the past and of foreign places – a testament to her at once lyrical and precise style. Born in Cameroon, Max Lobe came to Switzerland at the age of eighteen and he plays on the gaps and overlaps between languages and cultures even more overtly than Rakusa. The French linguistic texture of his novel, Trinité bantoue (Bantu Trinity) includes words from a Bantu language, Swiss German, and Italian and shifts between oral and literary rhythms. Mwána, the narrator, has come to Switzerland from the imaginary African country of Bantuland to find that familiar expressions like his father’s favorite term ‘black sheep’ take on a


Trafika Europe 11

particularly toxic resonance in the charged political atmosphere of his adoptive country. Unemployed, gay, and an African immigrant, Mwána is a triple outsider in his community. His lover Ruedi, too indolent to work and too proud to ask his wealthy family for support, is not too proud to live off of Mwána and his terminally ill mother. Lobe’s narrator is engaging, good-humored, and clear-sighted and he is not afraid to call things as he sees them with a tonic dose of irony. DanaGrigorceamoved to Switzerland fromRomania after completing her university studies. She brings an Eastern flair and delightfully dark humor to her storytelling. Victoria, the protagonist of Grigorcea’s novel An Instinctive Feeling of Innocence , has returned to Bucharest after several years in Zurich to work as an upper-level bank employee. After the bank is robbed at gunpoint—perhaps an inside job—Victoria is placed on leave, supposedly so she can process the traumatic experience. She spends this time rediscovering both her hometown and her own life, seeing the Bucharest of her childhood not only with the eyes of an adult but also from a Westernized perspective. Gradually, the unspoken


Editors’ Welcome

menace and bewildering absurdity of her past are revealed to her in a new light. Odile Cornuz has written theater and radio plays as well as novellas. Her French, supple and energetic, follows the inner turmoil and confusion of her idiosyncratically eloquent characters with lacunae and repetitions, burst of words and incomplete sentences. The monologues in Terminus offer glimpses of intimate moments in the lives of people you might pass on the street any day without a second glance. The Francophone writer, Michel Layaz, has written twelve works of fiction. With subtle, bemused humor and an unerring eye for human frailty and the lengths to which people will go to hide their flaws, Layaz writes movingly about the hidden tensions within families, the awkwardness of adolescence, and the drama of intimacy between friends and lovers. The narrator of his novel, My Mother’s Tears , has returned to clean out his childhood home after his mother’s death. Each brief chapter is focused on a talismanic object or resonant episode from his childhood and through


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them the narrator tries to solve the mystery behind the flood of tears with which his strikingly beautiful, intelligent, inscrutable, and impossible mother greeted his birth. Interspersed with these chapters are fragments from the narrator’s conversation with his present lover, a woman who “demands words” from him in a verbal exorcism of his past. A supremely varied stylist in French, Noëlle Revaz created an almost inarticulate peasant voice that was nonetheless capable of expressing both the deep abysses and tentative hopes in brutalized human souls in her novel With the Animals . In her latest novel, The Infinite Book , she employs graceful, even slick prose to fashion a surreal satire of the literary industry and consumerism. In the not too distant future—or is it the present?— books have become merely decorative objects to be hawked on endless talk shows. Some don’t even have pages. Authors are commodities, too, or would be if they weren’t still governed by their vanities, longings, and insecurities. Mundane objects like a single lost shoe, discarded how-to books, a classified ad, an anonymous


Editors’ Welcome

photograph become emblematic under the gaze of Matteo Terzaghi, our one Italian Swiss writer. Even the coincidence of two photographs on the front page of a newspaper can become numinous in Terzaghi’s hands as he teases out similarities and conjunctions between an obituary of the famous Formula One racecar driver Clay Regazzoni and an article on the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Walser’s death. Terzaghi’s collection of short prose pieces, The Department of Projections , is a nuanced reflection on sight, insight, perception, and the vagaries of the visual. Terzaghi’s short texts illuminate the complex interplay between the image and the imagination and offer snapshots of infinity. In his Uncertain Manifesto , Frédéric Pajak also plays on the tension between word and image. He interweaves short texts, biographical studies, ink drawings, personal reflection and an immense fund of reading to explore his own life and the experiences of his generation against a backdrop of totem intellectual and artistic figures. Walter Benjamin, Ezra Pound, Vincent VanGogh, Nietzsche, César Pavese, André Breton, are among the guiding


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spirits of Pajak’s life and age. His stark line drawings do not so much illustrate the text on the page as stand in uneasy relation with it, at time echoing or reinforcing the words, at others contradicting them. In contrast to Pajak’s encyclopedic gaze, we have Klaus Merz’s microscopic focus. He has been called a “master of the poetic miniature.” Both his prose and his poetry at first seem deceptively simple. Yet the more closely one reads his works, the deeper one is drawn into their complexity and richness. Laconic, razor sharp, and supremely concentrated, Merz’s poetic language captures a gamut of emotions in a minimum of words. He bores into each word and mines the multivalence within and between individual syllables. You could say his poems depict the world on little bits of ivory two centimeters wide. The most disrupted and disruptive text in our issue is Mariella Mehr’s fictionalized autobiography stoneage . Born into the nomadic Yenish people in 1947, Mehr was a victim of the ‘Relief Organization for Rural Street Children’, a government-sanctioned organization intended to forcedly assimilate the


Editors’ Welcome

Yenish in Switzerland. Under their auspices, she was separated from her parents, confined to a series of orphanages, reformatories, mental institutions, and prisons, and subjected to involuntary electro- shock and psycho-pharmaceutical treatments. Her German, tattered and raw, reflects the fissures carved into her sense of self by these experiences. An extended cry of outrage and pain, stoneage is Mehr’s attempt to write her shattered psyche back to a whole. stoneage has since become a seminal work of Traveller literature. The landscape of contemporary Swiss literature has long been dominated by the monoliths of Herman Hesse, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, and Robert Walser. Under the shadow of these peaks, however, a lush, vibrant and varied literary terrain is flourishing. We hope this volume of Trafika Europe – as well as several other components to our Swiss focus which we’re releasing in parallel – will serve as an engaging travel guide. Tess Lewis


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This issue is rounded out with stunning photo compositions by acclaimed Swiss photographer Jules Spinatsch – several of them composed of hundreds or even thousands of individual images. Be sure to use our zoom tools to appreciate the incredible fineness in these works! And for much more, please see, More Swiss Delights! There we’ll be rolling out the following: • an animated literary video we’ve made from an excerpt of Ilma Rakusa’s A Wider Sea , which she narrates in English; • a terrific audio interview with Michael Fehr; • a literary presentation and discussion with Leta Semadeni, recorded at New York University; • a “starter-kit” list of recommended Swiss literary titles for you to explore, available in our bookshop, and • a long essay on the import of Mariella Mehr’s profound work, by translator Roger Russi Thanks very much – and enjoy! Andrew Singer



16 16


chael Fehr

17 17

Michael Fehr Griese brakes abruptly the other man just manages to clap his hands against the dashboard it looks as if he wants to rise from his seat but then flies back into the seat padding as the car stands still ‘You didn’t need to stop like that’ Griese

‘Damn it Schwarz put your belt on...’



Grey wet dull a Swiss weather quite a way off the beaten track reached only via a squelchy cart track from above in a remote

desolate farmhouse with an impetuous roof a dilapidated load of grey and black dabs below which a load of blind windows stares vacantly into the bleakness in the far from cheerful parlour the landowner sits with his back to the row of windows after the oppressive silence with which the beams bear down and keep the room low the only man and human in the house outside the rumble comes wobbling down from above closer to the house


Michael Fehr


After he has sat there for a while with the engine turned off and a gradually cooling car interior staring straight at the house gets out of the Landrover mudcovered all around the bottom but would actually be grey as can be seen looking at the roof section Griese municipal administrator as such because of the remoteness of this location entrusted with all imaginable official tasks that arise locally also as a kind of representative of the cantonal welfare authorities for the whole spot of land primarily responsible for everyone whose sense of self-management out of mere lack of education out of neglect illness or other madness is too lacking for them to be left alone



in dirty rubber boots otherwise decent wears a moustache which improves his resilience as someone with the first name Anatol which immediately marks him as someone who has migrated from the northern neighbour and is hence not local improves slams the front car door shut opens the back one takes from the seat a jaunty huntsman’s hat and with sympathy for emigrants from the floor a rifle whose magazine he conscientiously checks a Bauerundwaldschrat repeater rifle a kind of family make father and son-in-law tried their fortune abroad in their time quickly came up with a heavyleadhunter an indestructible arm for foxhunting which in those days from a very remarkable distance left


Michael Fehr

a fox in tatters and did so repeatedly which was also necessary

as too imprecise to fire at a hare

but powerful enough to smash through and fell a horse and as the jocular hunting hordes preferred the thoroughbred pelt in one piece the company soon shrank and got lost yet

the HLH repeating rifle unobtrusive and sleek

with emphasis in their voice yet which allows no contradiction was built several times and sold because of its power a piece that inspires confidence checks the safety catch as well unlocks puts the gun carefully back on the bare floor of the car metal on metal heavy killing device a good match for heavy



working device leaves this door ajar without letting it click shut wades across the feculent farmyard avoids the place where once roughly the dung-heap stood bends his head shoves his shoulders through beneath the roof his tie choking him through his shirt-collar stands suddenly outside the door whose upper half consists of six glass panes peers in shadow light at the end of the hallway the narrow corridor runs along the whole width to the other side of the house where there is an identical door and light falls in he listens slaps the flat of his hand a few times against the wooden frame in which the small panes rattle


Michael Fehr

nothing tries the door it is open he steps in into the shadow somewhat reticent because of his dirty rubber boots then remembers that this doesn’t matter now then firmly walks the few steps until from the corridor the door on the left leads to the parlour door closed he would like to turn round and fetch the grey torch from the Landrover another piece of metal

he contains himself it will all work out ‘Schwarz’ he says now for the first time

his voice croaks clears his throat ‘Schwarz’



then more firmly ‘It’s open’ the one inside tries the door

it’s open opens it inside at the other end of the room the man the row of windows behind him ‘So you are here’ Griese with slightly pinched features because in spite of the darkness in the room it is dazzling from across and probably in any case ‘Won’t you come in,’ the farmer ‘the cold’s coming in’ the official steps over the threshold shuts the door behind him ‘Warm in here’


Michael Fehr

takes off his hat ‘Want anything’ the other one ‘Thanks’ trots back until his back is by the door which gives him strength ‘Got nothing to eat’ ‘Thanks’ ‘Want to sit down there’s room enough isn’t there.’ ‘Thanks’ totters away from the door ‘Schwarz I’ve come to get you’ the farmer shifts the bench on sits sideways a little rests hand on the table

pushes himself a little away from the bench pulls the transparent curtain slightly to the side knocks away the catch



that holds the runner small trap window closed opens the little pane that can be opened separately as a sixth of the big window looks out of the hole clearly into the bleakness ‘Broth’ closes it turns back ‘when it freezes grey black crust when it’s hot grey black sauce in between something in between sludge leans his head against the small patch of wall between two windows ‘What you want’ ‘Schwarz’ the man from the door ‘What you want I have no business here’


Michael Fehr

‘Then we should get going’ the administrator ‘you knew I was coming I told you on the telephone’ ‘Telephone’ says the one at the window hits the table making the parlour rattle ‘can come if you want something’ ‘I’m here now’ ‘You’re right there.’ ‘Now then’ ‘Have you ever Griese in your administrative office thought what socialism is all about’ ‘Socialism



get lost with your socialism I’m a municipal representative

welfare Schwarz you know exactly why I’ve come

and so now we’ve got to go’ ‘You can say goodbye Griese to socialism’ gets up from his bench where he has been sitting for who knows how long groans walks to the edge of the side wall no rack just a shelf hung on the wall with two boards one above the other on which all the books that the parlour wall can bear

and the house tolerates have ended up pulls firmly a volume down from the


Michael Fehr

upper board

‘Page-turner’ goes back to the table sits down strikes the book with the flat of his hand ‘L’État et la loi by Bernard Noir Griese’ ‘What do you know about French Schwarz don’t talk nonsense’ makes a sideways gesture with his head that is probably supposed to point to the door behind him ‘I know something quite different socialism is always paralysed because the masses soon guess they are being swindled by socialist values however radical they might be not only can an elite skim the cream without the proles getting what’s coming to them but with nationalism you’ll soon get them



the masses the homeless and those thirsting for action’ ‘And such a thing in a farmhouse,’ Griese protests by the door ‘Yes in my house Anatol my house my land anyone however idiotic who doesn’t know what to do and wants to do something everyone loves Mother Earth every patch of earth on which he stands more than himself if you always make it appealing to him for national values they are willing to sacrifice


Michael Fehr

indeed their blood from nationalist values the elite can cleanly skim off the cream in the dark and secretly squeeze and milk the masses the worse things get for them the thinner they get the more homeless and thirsty for action they become then you toss them ultranationalism as a consolation and a sop ‘Ultranationalism’ Griese increasingly uneasy by his door Schwarz gets up again walks to the shelf forces another volume from the bottom shelf that is jammed gets it free steps to the table slams it on the other lying there ‘Bertrand Griese The Nation and its Borders An essay about hard lines and mercy believe me



socialism means for all nationalism means for the fatherland that means always for its first advocates who are selling it’ ‘It’s not funny now stop and come’ ‘Not funny means Griese we must fight be active and act’ ‘And know when enough’s enough you know it’s time you can’t delay me for ever’ ‘I can’t’ gets up again stops by the shelf raps his knuckle against the little pane of in a thin wooden frame on the upper board ‘Wife’


Michael Fehr

in fact a picture can be made out behind the glass ‘I can imagine that that’s your wife and where is she where is she your wife tell me that’ ‘In the picture the wife’ walks through the room to the sideboard a black piece of furniture with three cupboards in the lower part

above them three drawers then a top board and on it a

less sturdy upper part with three shelves one above the other without doors the two men are now standing almost side by side in the terribly sprawling low parlour except the farmer seems unconcerned about the other one



pulls open one of the drawers takes from it a grey casket puts it on the thick board that acts as a lid on top of the lower part of the sideboard ‘You’re right there’s nothing for me to do here now’ he reaches into his shirt collar tugs and trembles a little until a key on a chain appears he bends down until he can reach the casket lock with the key it crunches and clicks he straightens and at the same time lifts the lid of the casket inside stacks of thousand-franc notes it appears Griese seems startled and without noticing steps away from the door to the emaciated little landowner stares beside him side by side


Michael Fehr

into the open box ‘Schwarz where did you get this cash if one looks at your house down here your whole remote patch in fact what filth one great big shithole the way it looks and then this where did you get this bloody million dear god Schwarz it’s time for you to get out of here’ ‘For me to get out Anatol quite right for me to get out that’s why I’ve still got the dosh still in this century believe it nor not still in this one man will fly to Mars and get a foothold



and I Griese have sold land and people

I won’t be the last to arrive up there not the last’ ‘Dear God Schwarz Let’s get going at last and then you’ve just got the casket in a drawer I don’t believe it Close it and then we’ll go’ ‘The Americans or Russians French

Chinese Indians

we will fly to Mars this century

believe me’ shuts the casket puts it carefully in the drawer


Michael Fehr

which smells slightly of glue pushes jiggles a little to get it quite closed then follows the man from the authorities into the corridor steps out under the roof the municipal administrator puts his hat on it has begun to rain ‘It was supposed to be snowing I put on heating’ Schwarz growls takes from a black encrusted hook on the wall a long-worn-out grey slowly turning to white coat turns up the collar follows the other man across the courtyard he opens the passenger door to him inside it is as cold as outside bangs the door shut immediately the windows start to mist up from their breath



outside the other man stomps around the car quietly opens the door behind the driver’s door bends down into the car barely breathes takes his hat off in the front in the passenger seat breathing noisily calmly in and out through the bleakness rising up the window looking at the huge shabby house the old landowner


Michael Fehr


Up on the road through the forest Griese at the wheel

the other man stares motionlessly ahead only the way up through the mud shook him

now there is clearly no reason to move it smells quite damp in the Landrover must be the old man’s jacket Griese thinks and he is horrified that he has such a cargo he too stares straight ahead at the road that leads gradually down through the forest to the main road Griese skilfully steers the motorcar he is at home here anyway

even if it smells odd he has to make sure that he gets rid of the other one



pulls the telephone from his inside jacket pocket ‘Yes Griese we talked on the phone this morning yes of course this morning no my name is Griese his name is Schwarz on our way now I’ve got the man with me No it’s not that bad we’re not dealing with a serious criminal a landowner you understand I’m bringing an old landowner just one who’s slowly going wrong but what I want to say concerning the welfare claim we need to go through everything in detail not everything is as it should be


Michael Fehr

there’s money around yes right I’ve said That I informed myself but the information now seems to me to be a little incomplete at any rate this case is becoming ambiguous I know

you need to see the man don’t mean to pre-empt just observe so we’re on the way great yes

many thanks see you later’ puts the flat telephone back in its place then has both hands back on the steering wheel then the man beside him says ‘If I were you I wouldn’t let that nag lurch about at random in the car’ ‘What nag’



Schwarz points his thumb behind him Without budging any further ‘Well the fuse the bolt the gun back there’ Griese brakes abruptly the other man just manages to clap his hands against the dashboard it looks as if he wants to rise from his seat but then flies back into the seat padding as the car stands still ‘You didn’t need to stop like that’ Griese

‘Damn it Schwarz put your belt on

your seat belt you hear me’ ‘I wouldn’t know I’ve ever put my belt on not in any vehicle in this world you know you can put your belt on


Michael Fehr

when we’re travelling for six months humanity to Mars six months through space then you’d want to put your belt on then you wouldn’t know what’s up there’s stuff out there that we don’t know anything about under our gloomy sky we are swimming in quite a poisonous brew it’s time for innovation and then to clear out Exodus everything going all to hell here believe me but up there you can give it a go first you have to get to know each other then multiply

build farm bake and slaughter Communism



I’m the last one here up there I will be one of the first everything down here is chaotic there everything is still in unity everything reddish shapeless dust and stones in profusion

everything red beautiful colour here and there it bleeds into grey or white then you can go there and build something up from scratch stomp it into the ground work and defend cut and stab sculpt and slaughter eat and be eaten create and let loose you know where is the highest volcano in the solar system on Mars you know where are the deepest trenches in the solar system on Mars there are two moons going round it


Michael Fehr

and even the atmosphere is reddish also dust and the topography imagine it goes up and down and below and above in the new world only the highest culture survives not any other there is room for ideology from unified identity make something identical that corresponds to it Nationalism when the adventure begins then you can put your belt on Anatol then it’s all go you know where is the reddest place in the whole solar system is on Mars’ Griese strikes the steering wheel the horn blasts briefly in the empty forest the car runs on ‘Now shut up about your red nonsense’ ‘Just saying



you shouldn’t leave your rifle to rattle around in the car like that it could go off it needs the safety catch on’ ‘That’s what it’s made for that it can go off old man’ but he shifts in his seat now presses his shoulder into the back of the seat looks down in the back where the Waldschrat is wedged against the front seats from the braking ‘Don’t touch listen don’t touch the weapon’ ‘No let me I know easily as much as you you’ve never even pulled the trigger you little shit’ ‘I won’t be talked to like that not by you don’t touch it’ Griese turns the engine off pulls out the key


Michael Fehr

door open pulls the back door open the rifle out comes back to the open front door leans into the car pulls on the handbrake ‘Don’t touch’ walks around the heavy car opens the fifth door with the spare wheel mounted on it shakes open a folded woollen blanket puts on the catch _____





50 50

Trinité bantoue


51 51

Max Lobe

Ruedi laughs. I’m asking him to bring food so he won’t starve to death from refusing to eat the food from my country. Me, I can manage with everything that Monga Míngá sent me. But for how long…


I I’ve been perched here on this hill high above Lugano about thirty minutes now, waiting hopelessly for a bus that isn’t coming. The sun is at the zenith, beating hard on my bare skull, my Kongôlibôn. There’s an old lady next to me. She’s wearing an elegant dress, the color of vanilla. Her long white hair sweeps over her bare shoulders. It ’s so hot, her foundation is running, exposing the tiny wrinkles that carpet the area around her eyes. The woman won’t stop talking. She grumbles. She must be complaining about this flagrant delay of the public bus. And to think we’re always paying more and more, I believe I hear her say. She’s speaking in Italian. I smile at her. I don’t even know why. The truth is, I don’t understand much of the language. Just bits that sound familiar in passing. But, as my sister Kosambela likes to say, French and Italian, they’re kind of like the Bantu and the Swiss: distant cousins, maybe even close ones. As a result, I can catch a little of what the old lady is going on about. On the other side of the road is a bus shelter for all the public transport vehicles headed in the opposite direction. Two teenagers are waiting there.


Max Lobe

Their patience, like ours, is wearing thin. They seem exasperated. Not far from them, a gentleman in a soaked white tank top pushes an orange wheelbarrow with the town’s letters stenciled on it. It ’s a wheelbarrow from their department of public works. Whistling, the man empties the garbage cans. At least we’ve got that, the old woman’s look seems to admit, though she hasn’t stopped complaining. A poster near the garbage man catches my eye. It shows three white sheep on a peaceful red field that bears a white cross. One of the white sheep, with a smile, chases a black sheep out of the field with kicks from its hind legs. ‘Creare sicurezza’ is written on the poster. I calmly smoke a cigarette as I study the poster thatI find rather amusing. At that moment, it occurs to me that ‘black sheep’ was a favorite expression of my father ’s, who worked in the regular army in Bantuland. Aside from ‘black sheep,’ he often said: ‘lousy KGB’ (for spy), ‘Senegalese squawker ’ or ‘motamotor ’ (for someone who talks a lot). When we talked about traitors in the ranks of the army or wimps or even of soldiers fallen in battle, my father always exclaimed with glee: just a bunch of black sheep! A distant church bell begins ringing. I realize I’ve been waiting for the bus almost three quarters of an hour. In earlier days, not very long ago for that matter, I’d


Trinité bantoue

have sprung for a taxi. That ’s what another woman did who didn’t want to wait more than five minutes. But you see, a little more than a year ago, when I was finishing my masters degree with bravado, I learned I’d lost my job. I was a traveling sales rep with Nkamba African Beauty. After five years of good and loyal service, my boss, Mr. Nkamba, thanked me. He did so without the slightest hesitation. He didn’t offer any explanation. It went like this: he was putting an end to our collaboration. Period, the end. Anyway, we didn’t have a written contract. I sold his products and he gave me my gombo. All done in silent mode. Between us. Between brothers from Bantuland. What am I saying? Nkambo only came from there. He had passed to the other side just a few months ago. He had proudly renounced his Bantu citizenship. He’d become Swiss. Swiss and nothing else. I’m a real-real native Eidgenosse!, he would say puffing out his chest. I even heard that he votes rightwing. But I couldn’t care less about all that. What ’s most important to me is work. And I don’t have any. WhenMr. Nkamba told me he didn’t need me anymore, I didn’t believe him. What did I do wrong? What problem could he possibly have with my work? I made my numbers. Very good numbers, for that matter. I never skimmed anything off the top. I never behaved badly with his clients. On the contrary, I always had


Max Lobe

very good business relationships with them. There was never any fault in my conduct, not towards him, not towards anyone in this admittedly dodgy business with its illegally imported merchandise. I never refused to do any task he gave me. Because I wasn’t just his rep, but also his man Friday. Mwána, could you pick my son up from school? Mwána, could pick up my suit from the dry cleaner? Mwána, could you do this or that? Even, Mwána, don’t you have any beautiful girls you could introduce me to? Then he’d stroke his belly, bigger even than that a woman about to give birth: you know a man can’t eat rice everyday, right? I was loyal and dependable. But he didn’t hesitate to give me the boot. I begged him. I had no choice: it was my bread and butter. With this job, I could pay my tuition, support myself and even send a little gombo to Monga Míngá, my mother, back in Bantuland. Mr. Nkamba paid me off the books and I didn’t contribute anything in taxes either. That was part of our deal. That way all the fresh gombo I earned went straight into my pocket, into my stomach and, recently, into my Ruedi ’s stomach as well. There’s no point insisting, Mr. Nkamba had said, stroking himself with his fat fingers heavy with gold rings. No compassion. Without saying goodbye, I left


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his office, which was too cramped for his mastodon bulk. I slammed the door so hard, all the scorn and contempt I felt for him resounded in a sharp crack. I haven’t seen Mr. Nkamba since. Today, I regret having left Mr. Nkamba in those circumstances. Maybe I should have kept pleading. Maybe in the end he would have listened to my pleas. Maybe he would have remembered our five years of successful collaboration. Maybe I should have proposed we renegotiate the terms of our agreement, reduce my salary, cut my bonus on sales of his counterfeit goods. Maybe I should have threatened to denounce him to the Swiss authorities. Maybe… Waiting for the bus, it ’s not the story with Nkamba African Beauty that bothers me. Mr. Nkamba made his choice. Me, I’ll surely find a real job that suits my abilities, I tell myself with feeble conviction that trickles off my bare skull. What annoys me is not the bus’s delay. We always say that our distant cousins are an impeccably punctual people. Sure, but on occasion they too can be late— sometimes very late. The old lady next to me and her anger don’t annoy me either: she can rant and rave all she wants, she’ll have to wait for the goddamn snail of a bus. It ’s not even the political poster, hung over there across from me—which I will learn weeks later has an even more hateful character than most


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people thin—that bothers me. No. Nor even my red Louboutin shoes I bought myself so proudly back when everything was going well. What I’m most worried about at the moment are the two Mbánjok I’m lugging around with me! Two big bags that weigh at least sixty pounds each. What ’s in them? Food! That ’s right! Food, nothing but food. Straight from Bantuland.


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II Two months ago, my sister Kosambela decided to show her native country to her sons, two good- looking mixed boys with long, frizzy hair and full lips—9 and 6 years old. She’d always had this plan in mind. And no one could have extracted it, not even with a Caterpillar tractor. It was in Bantuland that she was going to make men of these two little Western weaklings. Real men. There was no way she was going to raise them to be like their father what ’s-his-name, who saw no shame in doing housework. He’d even wanted to take care of the children and had applied for paternity leave. He cries when he tells his wife he loves her! He cries when one of his sons pouts and refuses to eat dinner. Worse, he cries when he doesn’t hear from his mother for two weeks. My sister was dismayed by his behavior. She would think of our military father and exclaim with his favorite expression: is that a man? It ’s a black sheep! And if it weren’t for that-thing-there—yes that ’s what my sister called her husband: that-thing-there—she, Kosambela Matatizo herself, would have taken her sons to Africa, to Bantuland a long time ago. But now, as I talk to you, she can do it because she doesn’t have a husband at home anymore. From now on, she’s raising her sons alone.


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When Kosambela told me about their vacation in Bantuland, in Fang territory, northwest of our home, I first did a few dance steps from pure joy. I pictured my nephews getting lost in the vastness and beauty of that country filled with marvelous people. I told Kosambela not to forget to show them Victoria Falls, Lobe Falls, and Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. I asked her to take them to the Katanga Plateau and to Lake Tanganyika, to take them up Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fako, and not to miss the Limpopo and Ubangi rivers, the elephants of the Okavango Delta, the zebras in Etosha, and more, too. Then my joy gave way to fear. I was sick with fear for the little ones. Poor boys, I thought. How would they perceive the sad reality of our urban scenery and the heaviness of our traditions, completely unknown here, in Switzerland, where they were born? Would it be traumatic for them? Would they get a grip on it all? I’d immediately drawn Kosambela’s attention to medical issues, especially vaccines: —They absolutely have to get all the vaccinations, and I mean all. —We’ll do what we can by the grace of Nkambé. He alone protects. She kept fingering the white rosary she always kept with her, even when she called her husband that- thing-there. After a thoughtful pause, as if she were


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asking Nkambé for the proper response, she turned abruptly to face me. —My sons have true Black blood in their veins. —Black blood? Where did you hear that Black blood protects you from malaria or typhoid fever? —Fratellino, she laughed, still fingering her rosary, mosquitos know how to bite. So let it go. Today I’m convinced Kosambela was teasing me. I believe she got them all the vaccines they needed. I also believe she took all the necessary measures to prevent them from being bitten by a nasty female Anopheles, eager to taste a new brand of blood, mixed blood, the blended kind. To your health! In any case, the boys came back safe and sound. And circumcised, of course! May Nzambé be praised!, my mother said over the phone. My mother in Bantuland, it seems, was outraged on seeing pictures of me. Kosambela showed them to her. My mother thought I looked emaciated. —Oh Nzambé!, she cried. What is going on? He looks like a desert mosquito. Is he starving in that country or what? —You know, my sister replied, life with Whites is tough. —I’m sure it ’s the lady from the dole who’s bleeding


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him dry like that. She wants to do in my child or what? Or maybe he doesn’t like the food there? —The only thing to do is pray. —The Lord helps those who help themselves, my mother concluded. And so Monga Míngá decided to help herself so the Lord would then step in with His help. She took drastic measures to solve the problem. And acted fast. Letting the child waste away without doing a thing was out of the question. She decided to send me much-much provisions: some ndolè. Oh, that famous ndolè! My mother never leaves decisions to chance; she knows how much I love those vegetables! Fumbwa, saka- saka, makayabu, okra, dried impwa. Boiled peanut, grilled peanuts, dried peanuts, caramelized peanuts, peanut oil, peanut butter, peanuts, peanuts, and more peanuts. Cassava sticks, cassava powder, cassava doughnuts, tapioca, cassava pancakes, cassava, cassava, and more cassava. Squash seed cake, goat pea cake, coconut cake, cake, cake, and more cake. Taro, macabo. Palm oil, dried bushmeat, etc., etc. Serious food, that is. Real serious food. Everything needed to fatten up her Bantu colt in Switzerland. My mother ’s no fool. She chose these foods because she knows that a mouth that has been breast-fed never forgets the taste of milk. All my provisions had been carefully packed, first in


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plastic wrap, then in tinfoil, after that in newspaper, then in big Mbânjok bags. My mother had frozen them for a few days. Without fail, Kosambela put them in the freezer as soon as she got back to Lugano. And now, the bus’s delay threatened to screw everything up. All my provisions could melt like margarine in the sun. Cioè! Finally, the bus arrives, almost an hour late. I grimace and let out a long tsssss! before getting on. With a small cloth, I wipe the beads of sweat that cover my head. My burning Kongôlibôn relaxes in the coolness of the bus’ air conditioning. It feels good. The old lady is still cursing the delays, public transportation, etc. They’re the shame of this country, she must be repeating in a loop. I’m angry too, especially since I have six more hours on the road to get to Geneva on the other side of this country. It ’s a long trip by train and I have to pray to Nzambé that my provisions will make it home unspoiled. In the bus, I stare at the driver ’s face in the rearview mirror. He’s a short, stocky, bearded man. I wonder if his feet reach the pedals. I put my bags where they’ll be safe from any possible mishap. How will Ruedi, my little Grison, react to the sight of this avalanche of food from Africa? Since I know him so well, I know that, first, he’ll smile at me. He’ll be reserved. Then he’ll ask me if the World Food Program got the wrong address. We’ll both laugh. We’ll crack a few more


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jokes on the topic. Finally the Cartesian spirit of those-Whites-there would quickly regain the upper hand. At which point I’m sure he’ll say: but Mwána, you know, we don’t have enough room for all that in our little fridge.


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III Today it ’s my distant cousins’ National Day here, but also in Bantuland. God only knows why these two countries that in theory have nothing in common chose the same day for their national holiday. Here, the first of August is the anniversary of an oath sworn by three gentlemen, each of whom represented the very first cantons of deepest Switzerland. They call it the Rütli oath. They signed the pact in the late thirteenth century. Some, often the most elitist, say it ’s more of a myth than an actual historical event. They say it ’s a nice little story for the children. That is, for those children who still want to believe it. Others, on the contrary, puff out their chests and claim it ’s the very foundation of the country’s history, of its power. I’m not the one, poor little Bantu that I am, to play the judge between these two views of their national holiday. When I tell Monga Mîngá the two versions of the Rütli oath story, she doesn’t hide her surprise, the strength of her feelings. Those people are far ahead of us, she tells me over the phone. They were already signing treaties in times long past?, she asks. Then she adds, her voice dripping with irony, in those distant centuries we were still walking around naked in the forest with the animals.


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We laugh, making fun of ourselves. Ruedi isn’t here. He has gone to the mountains of his native Grisons. He decided to go because he doesn’t want to eat any ndolè, much less any pundu. He turns his nose up at grub from Bantuland, that one. He didn’t say this in so many words. The two of us, given the long stretch of our three years together, don’t necessarily need to say something to understand each other. As he was leaving the apartment yesterday, he invited me to come with him. He was being sly. He knew perfectly well I wouldn’t take him up on it since Dominique was coming to visit. And when Dominique comes to visit one of us, he demands lots of time and attention. He has rarely visit us both. Each time we did, one of us, Ruedi or me, ended up having to disappear and leave Dominique to be the object of the other ’s full attention. Over time, we ended up granting him his own place in our household. He has his own key. He knows that he can come in the apartment when we’re not there. Because it ’s his, too. But I doubt he ever would. He’ll always wait until one of us is there. He’ll wait for one of us to invite him. And then, he’ll leave his apartment in Carouge and come to our place. It has been very hot the last few days. All anyone talks about is the heat wave. They trot out the usual warnings and seasonal advice: drink plenty water,


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don’t stay out in the sun for extended periods, limit physical exercise when the sun is strongest. I’ve been trying to follow these guidelines for several days now. At noon, I lower the shades in my room to keep it cool. When I get home in the evening, I open all the windows to let in the coolness off the lake. That ’s what I plan on doing later when I get out of bed. Dominique is gone. I fell into a deep sleep after he left. He left me a note on the kitchen table. He writes that he was glad to see me again. He said it was nice. Very nice, in fact. I smile. It ’s a shame, he adds, he’d have liked to see Ruedi, too. In closing he wishes me a happy National Day in Bantu and ends with see you soon. I rub my eyes sti l l puffy with sleep. I crumple his note and throw it into the kitchen wastebasket with the old bananas leaves in which the cassava sticks I stuffed mysel f with al l day had been wrapped. I open the windows in my room. I stand at the open window and smoke a cigarette. I look at the bui lding opposite. It has been decorated. In almost every window there is a red f lag with a white cross. But not only. There are also lots of f lags from other countries: Italy, Portugal , Spain, Albania, Kosovo, France, Germany, etc. But I don’t see any from Africa, much less Bantuland. And yet, it ’s a very


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multicultural neighborhood. I think of my Bantu f lag—yes, I do have one. I ’d taken it with me when I left the country. That was a long time ago. I ’d put it on top of my things. Then I closed the suitcase. I did it with a feel ing of pride I sti l l remember today. The pride of an emissary given the honor of representing his country abroad. But since then, that sense of pride has dwindled. My f lag now sleeps in some rat hole or other. Why didn’t I ever hang my f lag in my window l ike the others? Was I not proud enough? Could it be that I ’m ashamed to say where I ’m from? Visitors to the vi l la my former employer and compatriot from Bantuland bought himsel f in the countryside near Geneva are greeted by the Swiss f lag and the Geneva city f lag right at the front gate. You don’t get anymore Genevan than that. A feel ing of gui lt washes over me. To escape it, I think of Ruedi . I imagine he must be smoking on the terrace of a bar perched high above his val ley. I think of Kosambela who, at this hour, must sti l l be in some federal prayer group. I think of the inevitable mi l itary parades that display our pride in the Bantu f irst of August. There aren’t just soldiers, pol ice off icers and f iremen in that parade: schoolchi ldren, col lege students, and our multiple pol itical parties also take part. The only ones missing are the ambulance drivers. It ’s not that they decide to


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boycott the f irst of August parade, it ’s that there’s no such service in Bantuland. It no longer exists. Sti l l standing at the window in my room, my face caressed by the soft, cool breeze from Lake Geneva, I think of the rainy season in Bantuland, a complete contrast to the dog days raging here. A rainy season that brings an army of battle-hardened mosquitos, armed to the teeth, ready to bleed you dry. Memories of the mosquitos buzz in my mind. I remember Kosambela who, as a chi ld, told me to watch out for the mosquitos in Bantuland because, according to her, they ’re no ordinary mosquitos. They ’re magic mosquitos, she declared rather gravely. She would tel l me that even bug spray couldn’t ki l l them because they put gas masks on before coming to suck your blood whi le you sleep. Black sheep, I ’d reply, trying to mimic our father ’s authoritarian tone. Kosambela was convinced that the only way to get rid of Bantuland mosquitos was to attack them head on with a hammer or, even better, a rake. When I think of these moments from our chi ldhood, I can’t help but smi le. I call Ruedi. —Well, did you eat something else?, I ask him. —Stuff on the grill. Lots of stuff on the grill. And you? —You know. The same old thing.


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