Beneath the surface placidity of Swiss life, undercurrents of spiritual turmoil and existential despair charge this powerful collection of provocative stories.
Renowned in European literary circles, Switzerland’s Stamm didn’t achieve his stateside critical breakthrough until his last novel (Seven Years, 2011, etc.). This story collection is even better, with pieces that read like the Zurich equivalent of Camus or Kafka, occasionally laced with a bit of Ibsen or Ingmar Bergman. Not a lot happens in these stories and what does mainly takes place internally, in the psyches of characters who don’t seem to have much control over their destinies or understanding of their motives and whose essential mysteries—to themselves and to the reader—could be described as the human condition. The American publication combines two separate story collections, the first published in 2008, the second in 2011, yet the stories themselves are timeless, like fables or parables, with the plainspoken translation reinforcing the stark, spare essence of the fiction. Some of these stories deal with the awkwardness of adolescence and sexual initiation, but the protagonists of many more are innocents as well. In “Children of God,” the longest story here, a minister navigates between sin and divinity as he falls in love with a young girl who insists that her pregnancy is an immaculate conception. In the process, he consults a doctor, one who was “not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God.” The following story, “Go Out into the Fields...,” concerns a landscape artist—identified in the second person as “you”—who learned to paint when “you learned to see,” who “kept painting dusks, as if you wanted to stop time, to escape the certainty of death,” and who approaches his work with “a passionate indifference.” Another protagonist, a young girl who lives “In the Forest,” survives through “alert indifference.” Such a perspective might be considered Zurich Zen, and Stamm is its master.
For those who have an affinity for metaphysical fiction written with a surgeon’s precision, this collection will spur readers to seek out everything else by its author.