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Man in the Holocene, Max Frisch

Der Mensch erscheint im Holozän, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1979 (Switzerland)
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, (US), Translated by Geoffrey Skelton

The alps are the result of folding.

It’s spring and you’re driving your father through the narrow alpine valley of Surselva, Switzerland, the region where he was born. The valley is wild and winding and flanks the river Rhine that shoots ragingly downwards from its deep prehistoric origins in the glaciers of the Oberalp above.

Erosion is a slow process.

High atop the mountains it is pure snow, fresh and creamy. Here below it’s half sunshine. Half mist. Both warm and cool as the first wild flowers and grass push themselves out gently from the softening earth. The Rhine is fierce and immutable. Indifferent. It gushes madly. It tumbles grey and icy cold over rock and boulder. It breaks banks and trees. Stone and grass. Tearing it all apart in huge bites. Carrying it all away.

All that was a long time ago.

You cross Ilanz, the commercial town where your father’s uncles Ludwig and Anton both ran a printing press and stationary shop respectively. Your father remembers visiting them on his bicycle as a child. He remembers the oily type being set by hand on the great iron press. The schnapps Anton had hidden away. Remembers visiting his aunt Cecilia for lunch before bicycling back home up the long winding road to Brigels, the small village resting on a sunny plateau high above the Rhine. He points out another house where another uncle’s children were poisoned once by a disturbed service maid in some fit of strange mishap.

One must be prepared for everything.

Your father is 83 years old. And though you don’t openly discuss it, this is his last trip to Switzerland. Oddly, you don’t feel sad about this fact. Nor does he for some reason. But somehow you both have the inherent feeling and urgent need that everything must be visited again. Everything must be chronicled and marked down. Detailed and remembered. Every description. Every personal history becoming suddenly hugely significant and important.

His memory has served him correctly.

The sunburnt-black wooden farmhouses, tin-roofed, in the village where he was born (tin salvaged from old oil drums as the owners were too poor to buy ceramic tile). The crispy polenta that was cooked with mountain cheese over the fire (as their family could not afford meat and rare were vegetables and fruit). The small bakery shop run by his father Casper and mother Genoveva before the Second World War (his father dying of a heart attack before the war was over. His mother having to take over the shop on her own). The sanatorium in Arosa where he spent three years rehabilitating from Tuberculosis when he was six years old (same sanatorium detailed in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). The village of Mon where he spent a summer on an alp as a goat herder when he was twelve (losing his goats once in the rain and not returning down to the village for fear of being punished). The sweet poetic Latin-based language of Romansh that he and his family and the other villagers spoke. A mystic and lost language left over from old Roman trade routes.

Today the sun is shining.

You pick up three keys at the tourist desk in Brigels. Keys that give you access to three historic chapels in the village. You walk to the first chapel, St. Martin, that’s facade is etched with a large fresco of St. Christopher bearing a small child across the water. There is a great wooden door at the entrance carved with a huge sun sign. Inside, the medieval frescoes and timber ceiling are marked with cryptic numerals and lettering, sigils and crooked illuminations. The village of Brigels means “hill” in Celtic, and later you hike up the hill to the chapel St. Eusebius (the oldest chapel in the village first chronicled in 1185). Here again a fresco of St. Christopher marks the facade. Your father remembers the Catholic procession and hike here every year from the village below. He tells you of an old legend of a great ancient lake once stretching here across the valley between the glaciers. How the villagers in the town on the opposite side would row their boats across the water to come and bury their dead on the hill of St. Eusebius. There is a Neolithic cupstone farther up the hill above the chapel your father remembers, but now we somehow cannot find. “If you put your foot in the footprint-shaped hole of the stone,” your father says, “you’ll be cured of any ailment.” The last chapel, St. Jakob, eerily carries the same St. Christopher facade image as the others.

A path is a path even in fog.

There are other stories. Other memories. And you try desperately to capture it all, write it all down in some sort of coherent and comprehensible timeline. You feel like a detective. At times an analyst. After dinner in the hotel chalet he lies down on the bed and you begin. It all comes back. Like some fierce, torrential river. You try to get the times and dates correct. But more importantly, you want the feeling. The atmosphere. You try to disconnect yourself from any emotion or the reality of the situation. It’s all too overwhelming. Your cousin whom you visit the day before gave you postcards your father had sent to his brother (now deceased) when he was young. Your father had sent them in the early ’50s from Quebec, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles. The postcards are written in Romansh but you can decipher some of the language as well as the dates. Cordials salids, he writes in beautiful cursive script with a picture of the RCA building on the front. Cordial salutations.

He has plenty of time.

You try to detach yourself. Try to stick to the facts. The first crossing to Canada in the early ’50s on the SS Olympia passenger steamer. Sneaking up to first class late at night to listen to live music and watch the dancing. The landing in Halifax and immigration office at Levis. The thick black smoke of the train on the way to Quebec. So black it soils his raincoat. The lost trunk of clothes in Le Havre. The feeling of excitement (not fear, as this you specifically ask) landing in a foreign country with only five francs in his pocket. Flying to Los Angeles and sitting in a hotel room going through the phone book looking for a restaurant where someone speaks French so he can ask for a job. Buying a ’54 Chevy Bel Air without knowing how to drive. Working as a confectioner at the La Dame Blanche, Le Chateaux Frontenac in Quebec. Cooking at The Jonathan Club in Los Angeles, The Pasadena Valley Hunt Club, The Riverside. Moving to San Francisco, Sun Valley, and finally ending up in Reno. Sculpting ice carvings for Marilyn Monroe. Falling in love. Having children. Building a house with his own hands. Running his own restaurant. Leaving Switzerland as a young man and never coming back to live here again.

The day is still young.

Too many details and memories to fill an essay. To fill a chapter. A book. A lifetime. Fill all the long and beautiful years coming. The short and pertinent years gone. The times and places and memories. The mountains. The snows of winter. The smiles of little boys and girls in a poor mountain village. The dream of new lands. The little boy looking out the window of a sanatorium pretending that the person walking up the road is his mother coming to visit. Running out on the balcony and throwing snowballs at the other children and getting sick all over again so he has to stay another year at the sanatorium. Starting school later in Brigels a few years behind his friends the same age. Crying softly on a green alp in summer as the late sun goes down as all his goats have run away and he’s too scared to walk back home and tell the others. Only to discover later the goats had found their way home safely all on their own.

“Gaudenz? Where have you been?”

Finding the way. The river. The valley. The years come and gone. The waters to be carried over gently. The times and places and mountains that remain. Or so you think. It would be lovely to think so. Yes, that they, too, are immune to time.

So you detach yourself. You have to.