To the Back of Beyond, novel set in Switzerland

7th November 2017

To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm, novel set in Switzerland, translated by Michael Hofmann.

An adult has the right to disappear

Peter Stamm is the master portrayer of the mundane, whether of life, people, places or situations. He can conjure up something very profound through beautifully constructed prose, brought to the English reader in this instance by translator Michael Hofmann, who is very experienced.

novel set in Switzerland

Thomas and Astrid have just returned home from their Summer holiday with their two young children, Konrad and Ella. It is mid August, the return to school for the children is imminent. Back in their house they start the washing and settle into routine, and at the end of the first day home, the adults opt for a glass of wine in the back garden. Astrid leaves momentarily to attend to Konrad, and in her absence, Thomas for no obvious reason, walks out of the house. And just continues walking….

This short novel is constructed in alternate chapters, how Astrid is getting on, and then what Thomas is up to. This pattern continues until the end. The author deals with the shock phase from both points of views and the loss each of them suffers, particularly Astrid who goes straight into denial. Her inability to feel any response is tangible, she just functions and moves through her days as if in her sleep. But life’s demands soon burst in on her closed in world and she has to declare her husband a missing person.

Meanwhile, Thomas blunders into a brothel, realises his mistake, has a drink and sets off again, continuing his walk up into the mountains, in perpetual motion, dislocated and numb, trudging ever onwards. Mountain huts, forest floors, brief encounters, a fall into a crevasse, doggedly, he continues in adversity. The whole story moves towards the end, but what kind of ending can it be?

The author conveys a great sense of Switzerland, nowhere specific, but that is what he is good at: the nuanced observations of everyday life and setting. From Thurgau in the East of Switzlerand through Schwyz, Appenzell and into Ticino and onwards…. he brings to life the lifeless villages at night as though everyone has gone to bed at a healthy hour or the sense of being in an eerie forest; winding mountain passes, cows coming down off the pasture (nothing like the Swiss Tourist Board might have you imagine). I read the book whilst I was in Switzerland and I felt truly immersed in country and culture.

This however is a book that is written in the head, and there is little of the heart, there are none of the impassioned responses of loss and anger that inevitably follow someone’s untimely and unexpected departure. It is like the brakes are permanently on, but one can sense the chafing to let it all hang out. But it doesn’t happen. As the Sunday Times said in its review, Stamm writes in his “usual drained-of-drama style“.

The translator has huge experience but I am sure that many will find the overly Americanised translation irksome at times. Is there really any need to convert Metric into Imperial (temperatures in Switzlerand are measured in Centigrade, the translator has converted them to Fahrenheit, I don’t really see the need in this day and age, and it just knocks the author’s authentic European voice). Furthermore the translator mentions that the children are “getting a place at the gymnasium” – gymnasium actually needs translating as high school, it’s not a gym, that is a rookie error.

Yes, I would recommend this book as it is superbly written, and yes I would definitely search out another book by Peter Stamm. The author was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013

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