Question: How many roads can be used to enter Switzerland? Answer: Several hundred.
Imagine a novel that refuses an ordinary logic but contains within its pages a multitude of overlapping narrative accounts from a cluster of speakers sharing a space vaguely defined in place and time.
Imagine a novel that exists on the threshold. A performance art piece rendered in writing. With a cast of characters who bring their memories, experiences and unbound images (The place I’m thinking of is a common refrain) weaving in and out of one another’s stories, through accounts that are sometimes offered within reported letters or phone calls, even though that same character is also apparently present. Or perhaps not.
Born in 1985, Swiss writer Dorothee Elmiger won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and the Kelag Prize in 2010 for her first novel Invitation to the Bold of Heart. Her second novel, Shift Sleepers, newly released from Seagull Books in a translation by Megan Ewing, is a bold and breath taking approach to story telling that defies expectations, but does so in a seamless and engaging manner that, under a heavier hand, could have read terribly forced and artificial.
Set in a house in some unspecified location, presumably in Switzerland, a seemingly eclectic group has gathered. It includes a translator troubled by dreams of collapsing mountains, a logistics expert suffering from prolonged insomnia, a travelling writer, a female academic named A.L. Erika who talks of a significant period of time spent in Los Angeles, a journalist, a student from Glendale, California, and the restless Fortunat Boll whose pursuits have taken him to Texas, Portugal and other locales. On the sidelines, so it seems, are the logistic expert’s sister and brother-in-law and Mr. and Mrs. Boll. Although a few of the characters carry the bulk of the narrative, their stories are not only interrelated, but as listeners they are actively engaged with and attentive to one another—questioning, urging the speaker on, offering supplemental detail. If that sounds odd, well it is. But it is remarkably effective. This is not a random multilevel conversation so much as it is an orchestrated, open ended meditation on a number of vital, and difficult inquiries that affect us all on personal and political terms.
Their conversations touch on art, music, writing, justice, migration, trade, and belonging. Their discourse rises as a polyphonic hymn to the nature of movement across borders—ideas in language, language to language, country to country, wakefulness to sleep, sleep to dreams, life to death.
But is it readable? I found it endlessly fascinating myself, but I imagined it as a play, as a performance art project rather than any kind of conventional narrative. The voices and their stories are what matter and the author wants to ensure that you listen to what they say. Thus, more than a house, the setting is akin to a stage, or a room into which many doorways or thresholds converge. Characters come and go, retire to their rooms, assemble to share a meal. But the action, if it can even be called that, is minimal. Movement happens elsewhere. In memories and dreams. And it is in these reflections, and the questions that arise, that the novel’s power lies.
Shift Sleepers is a fragmentary work, but one in which the fragments blur and blend into one another. In the course of one paragraph, a number of voices many pick up a thread, carry it for a sentence or two and step back. The key characters slip in and out of singular accounts that go on for a several pages at a time, continually resurfacing through the course of the book.
Each person is essentially exploring the same issues that, in different contexts, ask: What does it mean to be alive? In this moment? At any moment or place in time?
It is human to want to know where one fits in and with whom: Who’s there? the opening words of Hamlet, form a frequent refrain.
The figure of central concern, the one who embodies within himself, the primary focal point of engagement for this ensemble, is the logistics expert who has a background in customs, monitoring the transport of goods across borders. In his recent state of extreme sleeplessness, he describes no longer being able to distinguish between events near or far, or to determine what is relevant. Caught in a state of strange alertness, detached hyperawareness, he experiences himself wandering through streets and towns, bombarded with images from North Africa, particularly Djerba, an island off Tunisia, seeing an owl, images of bees and being routinely distracted by a child playing a flute. Strangers sit in his apartment, people come and go, but he is unable to fall asleep himself. He describes his desperation:
even the attempt to remove myself from the city and the events led nowhere, these things were happening everywhere, I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t imaging things, I was continuously awake and saw everything with my own eyes. In Djerba too, in Athens too, in Florida too everything would have continued the same way, everything actually behaves this way, the Customs manager produces risk analyses, two men allow their bodies to be rolled up in rugs to cross the border, the Swiss farmer has no more use for the asylum seeker when he fails to understand for the third time how to pick crops, the mountains form a natural border, the shift sleeper is in search of a new domicile.
The shift sleeper of the title has a historical context stemming from the second half of the nineteenth century when migration into the urban centres of Europe led to a shortage of available and affordable housing. Newcomers might be forced to rent a bed during the hours its regular occupant was out or otherwise engaged. Without an unconditionally secure place to rest, they would grasp at sleep for a few hours at a time. These individuals or transient existences were a source of public distrust. They still exist of course. Today’s homeless person, refugee, and migrant continues to live this way—in streets and alleys, couch surfing, in camps and settlement centres, and too often, wherever they can.
Not surprisingly, the body is a striking and recurring image in this novel. Several speakers admit to their own varying degrees of personal bodied discomfort, and metaphysical disconnect, while the bodies of others—of smugglers, migrants, victims of physical violence—become an object of fascination and concern. Even obsession.
Other motifs that recur throughout the conversations that comprise this work are movement, passages, across bodies of water, through forests, on foot, by train. Safely, legally, or otherwise. Falling is also a frequent image—from the crumbling mountains of the translator’s dream that opens the book, to regular references to the work of Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader, who disappeared in 1975 during a solo transatlantic voyage launched from Cape Cod. Encounters with his work, which often deals with falling, sit as a reference point connecting many of the characters to one another. And his fateful final “performance” is echoed with historical references to earlier transatlantic migrations toward North America. Historical themes are blended with contemporary images throughout.
Originally published in 2014 as the migrant crisis was raising alarm in Europe, Shift Sleepers is even more unsettling in light of Trump’s border detention camps and the increasing nationalism and xenophobia spreading worldwide every day. At one point, the logistics expert recounts a phone call from the journalist, wondering how he could be so complacent when so many people were risking everything everyday by simply crossing the national border that ran past his house. These people, he is warned could disappear, find themselves in remote enclaves:
He himself had tried in vain that day to enter a so-called reception centre, even though these centres and cells, these sensitive zones, were easy to find and he could go there without much issue either on foot or by car, as he explained on the telephone—at the same time it was impossible for him to ever actually enter these places for as soon as he set foot inside their rules lost all validity as concerned his person.
These spaces, he explained, essentially established two different categories of persons—and two separate categories of being. Further along, another character, speaking of a visit to the US will wonder why it is easier for some people to cross borders than others? Or rather, why can an American cross a border without changing, whereas a Mexican crossing the same border becomes a different person?
One of the counterpoints played out against the increasing divisions between people and kinds of people, is explored in the idea of the possibility of harmonious communities. Fortunat Boll, a man who is present with his parents, speaks of his own innate loneliness, his travels to Texas and interest in La Réunion, the utopian socialist colony founded in Dallas by Victor Propser Considerant in 1855 to which his own supposed relative naturalist Jacob Boll briefly belonged, and of his father’s own bee colonies. Both the colonies, human and apian, had in this case failed. Fortunat wonders if he could ever live with others or would he always need to be apart.
Today I live alone, do I feel lonely? Hardly. Over time I have lost a certain vulnerability, I rarely have strong emotions whereas everything weighed heavy in my youth, I was driven by feelings. This tuba tone is finite and vanishes in the air, it means two things that are mutually dependent, the place of my childhood and the distance from it, such antagonisms are beautiful because they are simple, now I see the world as a complicated structure, everything possible exists within it simultaneously.
One has to wonder about unusual ensemble within which, at least for the duration of the book, he has found himself. What strange spell holds it together? There is a sense of cohesion borne of the questions asked and the answers given, in how stories are shared, often the same experience told from different angles, sometimes first- other times second-hand, stories nested with stories—like sets of personal and communal Russian dolls.
Images are echoed and revisited as the book progresses. However, rather than feeling repetitive, these returning accounts add to the density of the narrative, becoming threads woven into a self-referential intertextual tapestry. There are few answers to the uncertainties and concerns the various characters carry with them. There is no explanation as to how they all arrived at this one place or why they’ve gathered. This is a story about questions, not answers, about the personal concerns about our lives, bodies and relationships that are ever evolving, and the broader issues—migration, justice, and global trade—that threaten our ability to share this planet.
Shift Sleepers is a symphony of inquiries. Elegantly composed and executed. A very impressive achievement for a writer who is still very young.
Shift Sleepers by Dorothee Elmiger is translated by Megan Ewing and published by Seagull Books. It is my second read for Women in Translation Month 2019.