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Rebecca Gisler | Keeping house with uncle

07.10.2022 – BEAT MAZENAUER

It is quite the exception when an author publishes a book in two languages. Rebecca Gisler is one such exception. Her book “Vom Onkel” was first published in 2021 in French under the not strictly correct title “D’oncle”. This intentional slight error demonstrates her delight in playing freely and creatively with language. The same attitude is evident in the German version as well.

REBECCA GISLER “Vom Onkel”. Atlantis Verlag, Zurich 2022. 144 pages. CHF 27.

“Vom Onkel” is set in Brittany, in an apparently idyllic village on the Atlantic coast, where little happens and the nearby supermarket is the only attraction besides the local “Vieille Auberge” pub. The narrator and her brother are involuntary housemates, living with their uncle, a thoroughly lovable, corpulent character who suffers from increasing incontinence, bathes less and less, and strews litter about his room.

The reasons for this ménage à trois remain as much in the dark as other family secrets, whose vague outlines are shrouded in silence. Most of the time, a calm serenity reigns in the house and in the lovely garden that surrounds it. The pace only quickens once in a while, such as when the uncle has to be rushed to the hospital or the brother, unnerved, takes off a short time later.

REBECCA GISLER D’Oncle. Ed. Verdier, Paris 2021. 122 pages. CHF 24.

Gisler relates all of this in an understated, peaceful book that is brilliant, above all, in its use of language. She packs her observations into long, intricate and beautifully composed sentences that glide gently along and resonate with readers instead of deterring them. Admittedly, her story does lack a certain edge now and then, namely because the uncle does not disturb neither does he provoke. The travel film about Switzerland and its chocolate delights, which the siblings watch because they were born there, also seems somewhat clichéd.

Yet at the heart of it all, life revolves around the uncle. While everyone else turns away from him in disgust or exasperation, the kind-hearted narrator remains loyal to her uncle, which leads her to go searching for him at the end when he suddenly disappears – and finds him about to eat a seagull. The charm of this darkly comedic book lies in the unwavering empathy shown by the narrator, who is completely undeterred by her uncle’s antics. This portrait “full of profound humanity” garnered Rebecca Gisler a Swiss literature prize in 2021.