Wednesday 23 May 2018

The Naked Swiss

Switzerland is an exotic country, I thought to myself when, some years ago, I travelled around the Brazilian Northeast and learned, among other things, that Brazil, like Switzerland, comprises 26 states. In the case of the huge landmass called Brazil, this makes sense, in the case of the small mountainous territory called Switzerland, it doesn't. Or does it? As usual, it depends. Forget about "federalism" and "historically developed" and the like ... and consider this: In order to not feel completely lost on planet earth, human beings look for stability and for ways to keep themselves busy. The Swiss opted for a uniquely complicated solution that has the advantage of being difficult to change .. and that not only attracts foreign businesses and criminals but also provides stable working conditions for bureaucrats and reference points for the entire population.

That is, in short, the way I see my native Switzerland. There are of course many more facets to "my" country and journalist Clare O'Dea, who became Swiss in 2015, made me aware of quite some I wasn't even remotely aware of.

"In writing this book, I was driven by a desire to get the facts straight, and for those facts to be fair and accurate. To really understand a nation, you have to get to know its people, and I hope I've done my bit with the introductions here." Yes, you've done that, Clare, but you've actually done much more than that. While I think myself rather well-informed when it comes to things Swiss I was really surprised to learn that quite a lot had completely eluded me.

Let me give you some examples that I thought particularly fascinating: I had no idea that Swiss photographer Luc Chessex, whose Swiss Life (Editions Payot, Lausanne, 1987) I had very much liked, had lived in Cuba from 1961 to 1975 and worked for several years for the Cuban Ministry of Culture as an official photographer of the Revolution. It was also totally new to me that Swiss author Pedro Lenz, who writes in dialect, had his book Der Goalie Bin Ig translated into Glaswegian dialect under the title Naw Much of a Talker. Moreover: "It was only after spending time in Glasgow and getting to know Scottish writers writing in Glaswegian dialect that he had the courage to get over his complex and attempt to write in his own voice."

Also: I didn't know that Dostoyevsky felt such hostility towards Switzerland (he lived in Geneva and Vevey in the late 1860s). Or that Swiss scientist Hans Rudolf Herren is credited with saving more than 20 million lives in Africa by identifying and targeting a Paraguayan wasp that kills the mealybug. Or ... but read for yourself, it is worth it.

The Naked Swiss is not only highly informative (the myths examined range from 'The Swiss Are Neutral' to 'The Swiss Are Crooked Bankers') and profoundly balanced (as it befits a true Swiss author) but also good story telling. I've especially warmed to the tale of Michel Simonet, a street sweeper in Fribourg, who is also the author of a book about his life (Une rose est un balai) from which the following quote stems:

"A free head and busy hands suits me better, by the way, than the inverse. You think and exert yourself at the same time. Streets and squares are my gym, my solarium on fine days. I sing there like a cicada while working like an ant, with open skies as my only limit, and a direct line to Our Father. (...) This harmonius balance between magnitude and intensity, action and contemplation, enthusiastic élan and habit, know-how and knowing how to be, of public relations and solitude is played out over a full day."

Clare O'Dea
The Naked Swiss
A Nation Behind 10 Myths
Second, updated edition
Bergli Books, Basel 2018

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