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Max Lobe | The language of joy

14.01.2015 – Romain Buffat

In 2010, when the Swiss people were called upon to vote on a federal popular initiative entitled “For the deportation of foreign criminals”, posters displayed by the majority party on which white sheep chased a black sheep out of Switzerland’s borders could be seen everywhere. In Max Lobe’s latest novel, “La Trinité bantoue”, the same posters adorn the walls of “Helvetia”. This small country at the heart of Europe strangely resembles the Switzerland we know and it is here that the narrator Mwána lives. Originally from an imaginary African country, Bantouland, he lives in poverty in Geneva with his friend Ruedi. They have difficulty making ends meet, as Mwána lost his job as soon as he finished studying. His applications never come to anything. Ruedi, unemployed, refuses to accept any help from his family in Graubünden. Fortunately, Monga Míngá, Mwána’s mother, sends them food from Bantouland – “cassava pancakes, cassava and more cassava”. But not for very long: Monga Míngá, diagnosed with throat cancer, comes to Helvetia for medical treatment, staying in Lugano where Mwána’s very Catholic sister, Kosambela, lives. “Misery is knocking hard at our door,” laments Mwána, who will not give in. With a joyful spirit and inventive use of language, he chooses to laugh about the xenophobic climate prevailing in Helvetia where skinheads disrupt 1 August celebrations on the Rütli meadow. But something more tragic lies beneath the salutary laughter – the hard-to-imagine misery that plagues this country, often invisibly and silently. Max Lobe looks at unemployment, charity organisations, social welfare and the sense of shame associated with it with a deep sense of humanity and sharp observation to reveal the antechamber to the idyllic and wealthy Switzerland.

Max Lobe casts a sharp eye on the time in which he lives, using a language that reveals the constant search for identity. Dreamed up, warm and powerful, Max Lobe’s language draws upon many sources – German, Swiss German, Italian, various forms of French and African tongues. All of these languages sit side by side, clatter together and complement one another to provide an open outlook on the world, forging links between Bantouland and Helvetia. This language also represents a means of not giving in to the silence ­imposed on Monga Míngá by her illness.

Max Lobe: “La Trinité bantoue” (in French only), éditions Zoé, Geneva 2014. 208 pages.