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Marie-Jeanne Urech | The Kummer family and their woes

22.01.2018 – RUTH VON GUNTEN

“The silhouette of the commission agent drew near to the icy window, suddenly his face appeared fragmented in the candlelight of a birthday cake.”

This opening sentence suggests that the agent is not bringing good news. The Kummer family, like many others, are in arrears with their mortgage payments. But today they are celebrating Zobeline’s fifth birthday. Even her father Nathanael, who holds down five different jobs, and her mother Rose, who works tirelessly selling vitamin supplements door to door, are at home. The other family members are Zobeline’s brother Yapaklu, Seraphin, who has been traumatised by war, and Philanthropie, the chubby singer. She has always lived in the house and only ever eats “Schnitz”, a kind of puff pastry. Every evening she helps the family and their neighbours forget about life’s troubles by performing her songs. The two children are left to their own devices and bunk off school. While wandering around deserted streets they stumble across an unusual vending machine selling French fries which conceals a secret.

The story in Marie-Jeanne Urech’s book “Schnitz” does not have a specific geographical or temporal setting. It tells of a burst property bubble, the decline of the steel industry and the Kummer family. Winter and the cold predominate from start to finish. When Nathanael clears snow with the ploughshare in the dark streets at night, even the reader shudders with cold. The author paints a gloomy picture, but one which possesses a certain magical quality. This is also created by surreal characters like Philanthropie, who seems to have stepped straight out of a children’s fantasy story. Humorous, never downbeat or negative, the author keeps the hope of a happy ending alive. This social drama is fairytale-like but never detached from reality. It is a delightful read.

Marie-Jeanne Urech, born in 1976, attended school and university – where she studied sociology and anthropology – in Lausanne before going to film school in London. She works as a director and freelance writer in Lausanne. This novel was published under the title of “Les Valets de nuit” back in 2010 and won the Prix Rambert. This prize has been awarded to an author from French-speaking Switzerland every three years since 1898. The translation into German by Lis Künzli was published in 2017 with the support of Pro Helvetia. She has done an outstanding job of conveying the author’s poetic language in German without using flowery phrases.

Marie-Jeanne Urech: “Les Valets de nuit”, Edition l’Aire, Vevey, 2010. German translation by Lis Künzli: “Schnitz”, Bilgerverlag, 2017. 288 pages, around CHF 26.