Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Why Switzerland?

I've always thought it much more interesting what smart foreigners say about the country where I was born and of which I happen to be a citizen ("my" country sounds decidedly wrong in my ears for it seems to suggest something like ownership, a notion that I do find not only absurd but grotesque) than my fellow Swiss for the simple fact that "the right way of seeing" requires distance and emotional detachment.

Why Switzerland? is the "revised and completely updated edition of Jonathan Steinberg's classic account of Switzerland's unique political and economic system." Professor Steinberg is a distinguished academic who writes in the preface that the present third edition "makes more modest claims than its predecessors and will offer a much less comprehensive explanation of what is going on in Switzerland today. Its basic objective is to bring the data, where possible, up to date and see how much of the Swiss model, which I observed in the 1970s and 1990s still holds. If I can do that with some accuracy, I shall be more than satisfied."

I do not really feel qualified to judge the accuracy of most of Steinberg's claims but quite some accuracy is lacking in the preface. It is not Lucas but Lukas Bärfuss, it is not Professor Gerhard but Georg Kohler, and Roger Köppel, editor of "Die Weltwoche", is not a Dr. but lic.phil.I (according to

I must admit that I haven't read many books about Switzerland, and even less by university professors, who I generally do not associate with wit. And, most definitely not with Professor Steinberg's wonderful kind of wit.

"If the book is odd, so is its subject. There is no place like Switzerland and hence any attempt to catch its meaning must be pretty odd too. The sheer variety of Swiss life, what I think of as its 'cellular' character, makes it hard to make a coherent account of the place."

Having spent considerable time abroad has helped me to see Switzerland with an outside view. At times, that is, for one can't really shake off what has become part of oneself. I knew, for instance, that Switzerland is a very exotic country yet I wasn't aware of how exotic it really is. Neither have I ever fully grasped the incredible complexity of the Swiss system.

"For the frontier watcher. Switzerland is a paradise", Steinberg states and elaborates: "Cross the language border in Canton Fribourg (this is one not even marked by an outward sign) on the road from Bern to the city of Fribourg, and the streets look different. It is Francophone territory. How can one make sense of the invisible barriers which seem to divide otherwise identical settlements? The answers to such questions are extremely difficult to devise; it is not always clear what the question is." Right. Moreover, for the natives there simply is no question, it is just the way things here are.

In regards to Swiss identity I did especially warm to Professor Altermatt's observation that "Swissness, which is strong in New York, evaporates in the train from Zürich to Solothurn." Inside the country nobody feels Swiss but cantonal or local. For instance, I'm a citizen of Zurich and Kerns/OW. This however is (if at all) only relevant in regards to other Swiss, in regards to foreigners my identiy is not local or cantonal but national.

Swiss identity, so Steinberg, is in crisis for various reasons. One is the many foreigners now living in the country, then there's the decline of the traditional parties and the criminal behaviour of the elites, global consumerism and so on. In sum: "Catholic cantons are less catholic, rural life less rural, trade unions less solid and so on. The Swiss behave more like their neighbours because they have become in some ways less idiosyncratically Swiss but not in all ways."

Whether a system of government will survive depends ultimately on the mind-set of its supporters. Why Switzerland? has taught me that "the determination to survive and preserve 'Swissness' has not depended on will, as so often suggested by observers, but on a way of being, a set of values and habits so deeply ingrained that most Swiss are unaware of how powerful these values are." Indeed!

Why Switzerland? is a highly informative, cleverly argued, and most enjoyable read.

Jonathan Steinberg
Why Switzerland?
Third Edition
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2015

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Elaine Ling: Talking Stones

„Since my very beginnings as a photographer“, writes Elaine Ling, „ I have been captivated by ancient stones and the messages the send us from the ages. This book brings together my decades of obsessive travel and photography dedicated to recording remarkable stones, both natural and man-made.“

I also learn that most stones „were created to be messengers for what are now long-vanished cultures. The lone man of stone staring at a Gobi Desert horizon, the beheaded nobles v¨bearing gifts to a Chinese empress, a Buddha's face almost swallowed by a tree, were all conceived to preserve and disseminate tales of great journeys, battles won and lost, death or survival, anmcient myths and powerful gods.“

I must admit that before reading this I had somewhat indifferently glanced through the pages of this tome, not really knowing what to make of these pics. Sure, from time to time I paused and wondered what I was shown yet it was without real curiosity that I looked at these stones. For ancient cultures aren't really my thing.

How come then that I've decided to review this book? Not because ...

For the full review, see here

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Kuba. Magie des Augenblicks

Die Cover-Aufnahme dieses Bandes gemahnt mich an eine alte Postkarte, so grün habe ich Havanna noch nie gesehen. Und so alt und verfallen auch nicht, obwohl ich doch oft den Malecón entlang gegangen bin. Nur eben: Lorne Resnicks Kuba. Magie des Augenblicks ist kein Photo-Journalismus, bei dem es darum geht, möglichst die Alltagswirklichkeit abzubilden, sondern der Versuch, die Bilder in seinem Kopf zu fotografieren. So jedenfalls wirken seine Fotos auf mich. Nein, nicht alle. Und, um keine Zweifel aufkommen zu lassen: es sind wunderbar gelungene Aufnahmen. So gelungen wie Werbe-Aufnahmen (an die mich nicht wenige erinnerten) häufig sind und auch sein sollen.
Pico Iyer, dessen 1996 erschienener Roman Cuba and the Night mich inspiriert hat, Kuba zu besuchen und zu mögen, hat ein schönes Vorwort beigesteuert. "Als ich vor über achtundzwanzig Jahren auf Kuba ankam, erkannte ich, dass dies der schönste, bunteste, berauschendste Ort war, den ich je gesehen hatte; so berauschend, dass ich nicht wusste, was ich von ihm halten sollte – ausser dass es weder das sozialistische Paradies war, von dem manchen Freunde raunten, die nie dort gewesen waren, noch das totalitäre Abstraktum, als das es andere aus der Ferne beschrieben."

Natürlich hat sich seither einiges verändert, doch, wie Iyer nach einem Besuch achtzehn Jahre später feststellte: "Der kubanische Elan lebte nicht nur unvermindert fort, sondern wurde auf magische Weise freigesetzt, unberechenbar wie immer."

Gemäss Gerry Badgers Einführung, "wollte Resnick das Lebensgefühl der Insel einfangen, nicht durch kühle Dokumentation, sondern mit Fotos, die emotionale und poetische Resonanz erzeugen." Das trifft grösstenteils zu, obwohl es sich mir nicht erschlossen hat, weshalb nur Alt und Jung zu sehen sind und Menschen mittleren Alters nicht vorkommen.

Es gibt auch eindrückliche schwarz/weiss Aufnahmen in diesem sehr schönen Band, doch die meisten sind farbig. Den Schwerpunkt bilden Porträts und das mich am meisten faszinierende Bild, eine Strassenszene von oben fotografiert, ist die Tafel 77. Nein, nicht die unten abgebildete, sondern eine mich an René Burris Aufnahmen aus São Paulo erinnernde.
Ganz besonders hat es mir Lorne Resnicks Nachwort angetan. Weil es da so viel gibt, mit dem ich mich identifizieren kann. Etwa die Schilderung seines Besuchs im "Palacio de la Salsa im Hotel Riviera am Malecón, in dem ein 15-köpfiges kubanisches Orchester aus Weltklassemusikern, vor einer dichtgedrängten Menge aus den besten Tänzern der Welt spielte", die mich augenblicklich wieder vor Ort wähnen liess.

Höchst aufschlussreich fand ich auch seine Ausführungen zur Entstehung des Umschlagfotos, das ihm in dieser Form bereits vorschwebte, "ehe ich überhaupt nach Kuba reiste."

Lorne Resnick
Magie des Augenblicks
Prestel Verlag
München * London * New York 2016

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Wilderness to Wasteland

I approach this book by looking at the pictures. And, while „knowing“ that what my eyes are showing me happens to be wasteland (the title, after all, says: Wilderness to Wasteland), I assume I shouldn't be pleased by what I'm looking at ... but I am, I like these pictures, and feel attracted to them. For wasteland can of course look beautiful.

But is beautiful the right word? I'm not sure. The scenes depicted I have seen before. Similar scenes, I mean, not such pin sharp photographs. Moreover, never before had I taken the time to look at such images as intensely as I do this time for I'm wondering: Does knowing that I'm looking at wasteland make me see wasteland? Mostly, I'm imagining it.

When trying to decide what three pictures I should select to illustrate this review – not an easy task for I felt attracted to most of the photographs in this exquisitely done tome – , the first I chose was the one on the cover (and that can also be found in the book). It was an instinctive choice, the scene depicted looked familiar, it reminded me of Southern California. And, it is, as I learned from the caption: „Interstate 15 near Barstow, California.“

I had once travelled on this interstate and spent a night in Barstow and so, naturally, my mind wandered to that trip of some years ago and produced a variety of pictures that took me away from Barstow and Interstate 15 to what I recall as vast and wild territory on the way to Marta Becket's Amargosa Opera House in Death Vallley Junction. 

For the full review, see here