Sunday 27 April 2014

Dorothee Elmiger: Schlafgänger

Hot-bedding is a term that seems to originate from military language, meaning several people using the same bed in shifts. It was a common practice in 19th-century cities, including New York, Vienna and Berlin, where large numbers of people were moving to urban areas from the countryside or from abroad. German has a word for the people who lived this way, renting beds by the shift: Schlafgänger. When you first look at it, it seems to mean “sleep-walkers” but there is a different word for that. I haven’t found an equivalent term in English, but I have found reports that the practice still goes on in the US and the UK, especially among recent immigrants.

Grenzgänger, this time literally border-walkers, are people who live in one country and cross over a border to work in another country every day. Several hundred thousand people work on this basis in Switzerland, crossing over from France, Germany and Italy. In European Union-speak, these employees are called “frontier workers” or “cross border workers” and the phenomenon also occurs between the UK/Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are also cross-border commuters between the USA and Mexico and Canada. There are lots of rules stipulating who can and can’t do this, and of course the word is also used figuratively.

Dorothee Elmiger’s second book Schlafgänger, billed as a novel, plays with these absurd concepts, raising thousands of questions about borders and who is allowed to cross them and who isn’t. It is brilliantly puzzling. A group of characters are gathered together somewhere; it doesn’t matter where, so at one of the few meta-moments one of the characters tells us it is "some house or other". As it’s a book about Switzerland and the rest of the world that opens with a translator, I imagined it to be playing out around the table of the Swiss translators’ house at Looren, but that was a purely personal measure. The characters come and go, leaving the room as if leaving a stage – indeed, I was reminded of the work of the Austrian playwright Katrin Röggla, although Elmiger’s prose is much more rhythmic, with some beautiful trance-like repetition, and she doesn’t work towards a crescendo as so many plays do. Perhaps the characters are sharing beds in shifts, as the title might suggest, or perhaps they’re not. In between, they hold strange monologues about their lives and experiences.

They are the kind of people who cross borders with impunity. There is a writer, a translator and a young person called A.L. Erika, all of them women. The translator translates the writer’s writing, and A.L. Erika tries to write too and meets the writer in various places and situations around the world, and the translator notes that A.L. Erika seems to be obsessed with the writer. The writer comes up with pat phrases, which she contradicts on a regular basis. She claims not to be a liar, but she also says she can’t use the unfortunate situation on the border as writerly capital. There’s a student from Glendale who quotes Walt Whitman and a young Swiss man who travels to Texas and his parents who stay at home, and a logistics manager who lives by the border in Basel and can’t sleep and his sister Esther and her husband John, who’s a violist from Rio de Janeiro, and at some point there’s a journalist.

On 8 September 1992, Germany’s daily BILD ran a story with the headline “Living space confiscated. Family forced to take in asylum seekers”. As far as I’m aware, the story was made up and the tabloid was mildly disciplined for doing so, but I find it interesting that the discomfort it was exploiting about sharing personal space with strangers – and foreigners at that – echoes the image of hot-bedding. The tabloid was whipping up fears that refugees would “overrun” Germany – at a time when people were setting fire to asylum seekers’ accommodation. A little less than three months later, the German government and opposition agreed on an “asylum compromise” restricting applications for asylum in Germany. Since then, refugees have no longer been granted asylum if they have passed through a country defined as “safe” or if their home country is defined as “safe”, thus altering a key pillar of Germany’s postwar policy that had granted asylum to all victims of political persecution.

In February 2014, 50.3% of the Swiss electorate voted in favour of limiting immigration to Switzerland. There’s no need to imagine what came before that referendum in terms of xenophobic agitation, because Elmiger has written it into her book, quoting TV and press reports about border checks, fences built around asylum-seekers’ homes, drug smuggling, high-tech security equipment, and so on and on. Her characters talk about human bodies and the violence done to them, Rodney King crops up but also Icarus. She switches centuries, having her characters investigate historical utopian projects for which the Swiss themselves emigrated, shipwrecks in which Europeans drowned or were lost.

The book is made up of a great deal of material and a great many thoughts, many of which I haven’t mentioned here because I want you to read it for yourself. Some of the ideas go unvoiced – I assume the shipwrecks are no coincidence, but Lampedusa is never mentioned and there is no explicit reference to the common rhetoric about the boat being full, for instance. I found myself making notes as I read it, something I rarely do stringently, and darting to the internet to look up names. As in Invitation to the Bold of Heart, some of the historical figures Elmiger works in are real and some are imaginary. And again, part of the excitement is working out quite what is going on, although I haven’t managed that entirely. The book is not an easy read; it demands absolute attention and has minimal plot as such. Reading it is, however, incredibly rewarding. If it sent one message to me personally, it was that it is absurd that money, commodities and some people can cross borders largely unhindered, while other people cannot.