On October 12th, the Swiss Consulate in New York organized an event at Book Court in Brooklyn with acclaimed author Arno Camenisch, literary critic and professor of German literature Hildegard Elisabeth Keller and myself as a representative of The Missing Slate. Arno Camenisch is a Swiss writer who writes in German and Romansh (a Swiss language descended from Latin which is believed to have only 50,000-70,000 speakers today). Camenisch writes prose, poetry and plays. He is best known for his multi-award winning novel ‘Sez Ner’ (translated into English as ‘The Alp’), about life in a modern Alpine village. The readings and panel discussion brought up important questions about literature, translation and the place of both in our globalizing world.
Book Court opened the evening with welcoming remarks, Hildegard Elisabeth Keller then introduced the panelists and invited Arno Camenisch and actor Robert Lyons to read aloud passages from Camenisch’s novel in Romansh, German and English. The readings were split into 3 sets, interspersed with a panel discussion in which Arno Camenisch shared his insights on his work and process of writing. Camenisch read excerpts from his novel in both Romansh and German. The lyrical cadence of the words allowed the text to be felt even though the languages were unfamiliar both to me and to many of the audience members. A talented reader, Arno Camenisch inserted emotion into his reading just as easily in the softer Romansch and the more guttural German.
During the discussion, Camenisch confessed that he had reservations with the translation, saying that translations often do not capture the true essence or feel of the text. This is not surprising as Camenisch is a very careful writer who is very closely engaged with each word he uses when writing in German and Romansh. Arno’s problems with the translation opened up valuable discussions with audience members.
This meandered into discussions about breaking stereotypes— something Camenisch does expertly in his novels. Popular associations surrounding Switzerland paint life in the alps as picturesque, idyllic and very serene, Camenisch’s novel, however, as Hildegard noted, is about “pigs, sheep and above all cows— all of course, in disguise of an impressionistic literary representation.” This focus on violence and insistence on realism in Camenisch’s work challenges popular associations, instead portraying the Alps as Camenisch experiences them. Keller wondered whether farming was a topic of contemporary narratives in Pakistan. Keller, Camenisch and I discussed Pakistan’s primarily agrarian economy and the large role farming plays in the lives of many Pakistanis. Keller asked if I could imagine writing about farm life myself and I mentioned a recent short story I wrote set in Waziristan and how even though the focus of the story was the drone warfare in these areas, the characters’ everyday life saw them harvesting wheat and picking vegetables. This idea of such disturbances happening alongside every day farming activities is key to Camenisch’s work, in which all sorts of disturbances encroach on the lives of the four characters: a dairyman, his farmhand, a cowherd, and a swineherd, whose lives are constantly interrupted by such things as cruelty, alcoholism and danger. Camenisch said that the way his work saw technology and nature interacting with each other was very deliberate and drawn from real life. This is evident in the translation as well, in which his natural imagery frequently weaves in and out of references to machinery, technology and other idiosyncrasies of modern life.
Arno Camenisch shared his biographical ties with ‘The Alp’, saying that he drew on his experiences living in the Alps one summer while he was still in school. To illustrate the marked differences between city-dwellers and people who live in the Alps, Camenisch shared anecdotes from his life with the audience. Evidently amused at the recollection, Camenisch talked about how upon his return to school after his summer in the Alps, he shocked one of his classmates with his changed, rougher language. Finally, Camenisch discussed his choice to write in both German and Romansh with the audience. In response to a question from an audience member, Camenisch adamantly stated that he did not believe Romansh is a dying language at all and, even though few speak it, it will continue to persist.
The evening brought together a diverse crowd and raised many important questions that remain central to our changing, increasingly globalizing literary world and The Missing Slate’s mission as a borderless literary magazine.