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Patrick Boltshauser: Stromschnellen (Rapids)

This is the first book in a planned trilogy. (The second one is to be called Mäander [Meander] and the third Sediment.) The English-language version appeared in Dalkey Archive’s Liechtensteinian Literature Series. So far it is the only book to be published in that series. Perhaps as importantly, the author is not Liechtensteinian (he was born in Switzerland and currently lives in Switzerland, though he was brought up in Liechtenstein) nor is the book set in Liechtenstein.

The translator’s introduction compares the story of that of Ulysses, as the narrator is nominally trying to find his way home (which he is not, at least not in the same sense as Ulysses) and also because he has a series of encounters in his travels, especially with women, like Ulysses. However, given that this applies to many (most?) literary and, indeed, real-life heroes, the expression grasping at straws springs to mind.

The book is, in my view, quite simply the story of a troubled young man, who loses his way and who has various encounters with the opposite sex which invariably turn out badly. In this respect, he is no different from many real and fictitious young men.

The story starts with our unnamed narrator, who arrives the University of Bern to study zoology, as Boltshauser himself did, so we may assume that the story is at least in part autobiographical. His first adventure may be seen as a symbol of his life in the rest of the book. . He is looking for his lecture room but is clearly lost. However, he climbs ever higher in the building till he almost reaches the top. In the room he arrives at, he can hear a couple above him having sex. They descend without any embarrassment. He is Professor Zünd (zünden is the German for set fire to, which may or may not be relevant), who will later be revealed to be our narrator’s teacher. However, it is his wife who shows him the way to the lecture hall in the basement. Lost in the world, people having sex of which he is aware but where is not participating and, finally, being sent to the basement, more or less sums up his life.

He meets Marc, who will become his best friend, at the first lecture but, despite Marc, he is alone and lost in Bern, drifting around. He goes to a local park, which is considered dangerous, where he meets a group of drop-outs, including Frank and a woman, who offers him a syringe, called Katharina, both of whom will later play a role in his life.

Marc takes him to a castle near Florac, where he will meet Nelly, the second woman to play a role in his life, as well as Maren, Marc’s girlfriend (who also plays a role in his life). Nelly has a boyfriend, Peter, who seems to abuse her, but she remains (more or less) loyal to him. Finally, at biology class, he meets Anja, who will play the major role in his life. She too has a boyfriend, – Sebastian (Bastian), lead singer of the band, The Careless Visigoths.

The plot revolves around his relationships with these women, all of which are complicated by his immaturity, their immaturity and the fact that they all have other boyfriends. The other plot quirk is that one evening he sees Katharina and, as he sees her, she is struck and injured by a hit-and-run driver. He rescues her and gets her to hospital and, as as result becomes embroiled in her life in a manner which is decidedly not positive. He will later recognise the car and confronts the driver. He will continue to urge the driver to confess, either to Katharina or the police or both and this continues throughout much of the book.

We know how things are going to work out fairly early on, as Boltshauser has a few chapters be calls intermezzos, which recount the narrator’s later life (though not much later), when he has dropped out of university and is working in a care home. His obsession there is Marlene, whom he first meets when she is reading her poetry at a poetry slam, completely naked. Her aim is to get to New York and she does. His aim is to follow her.

As students are involved, we have the inevitable political activities. The zoology students protest about the abuse of animals used for dissection and Anja releases a live rat into the lab. There is a huge demonstration called dies irae about the park, which the police forcibly break up. However, our narrator stands apart from these activities.

Our narrator is clearly something of a lost soul. He does not seem to know what he wants to do, either when he is studying or after his studies. He is not politically active. His music listening seems to be limited to The Careless Visigoths. He tells us that he is not religious. He does not seem to get on too well with his mother, though visits her when she has to go to hospital. If he has other interests apart from the opposite sex, we do not learn of them. Despite the various women he has some sort of relationship with, he never has a proper monogamous relationship. They all seem to have other boyfriends or are not overly interested in him or both. The women also seem to make a mess of their lives and not just because of him.

This book is not The Odyssey and our narrator is not Ulysses, either Homer’s or Joyce’s. It is not a bad book, showing a young man lost in the world and making thing worse for himself with each step. What is he looking for? Perhaps a steady relationship but he does not seem to be able to manage that. As mentioned above, this is the first book in a trilogy. The other two have yet to appear in German, as far as I can tell, so we do not know whether we shall follow his further story (perhaps to New York, after Marlene). However, it would be interesting to read a novel by an actual Liechtensteinian author in this series.

Publishing history

First published in 2013
First published in English in 2014 by Dalkey Archive Press
Translated by Peter O. Arnds