When I heard Rose Tremain’s new book, The Gustav Sonata, was set in Switzerland, I could not wait to get my hands on it. Knowing she had a particular gift for evoking time and place, I had to see what she would do with the challenging setting of Switzerland during the Second World War.
From the first page, I was struck by how exquisite this novel is. Tremain delivers on all three fronts – story, characters and writing. The first of three parts is written from the point of view of the protagonist, Gustav, as a boy. I wanted to rush in and rescue this darling child. The middle part shows us how his ill-fated parents met each other and drifted towards their ruin. The third ‘movement’ brings us close to the present day, where we meet Gustav again in late middle age, the proprietor of a hotel and lonely heart.
Tremain fits so much human frailty and so many wrong turnings in these pages, inspiring compassion for every character, even those with awful failings. At the same time, she captures the atmosphere of small-town Swiss society and has an amazing touch for the environment and cadence of language, so much so that you feel you could be reading a Swiss work in translation. No chisel marks are visible on her sentences – they seem to have come into existence ready-made and perfect.
There are so many stories in one here, set against one of the biggest stories of all, the persecution and genocide of the Jews in the Nazi Germany. The character of Gustav’s father, an assistant police chief, is inspired by a real Swiss police chief, Paul Grüniger who risked his career by falsifying documents to admit 3,000 Jewish refugees into Switzerland illegally. Like Gustav’s father, Erich Perle, Grüniger was dismissed from his position and disgraced for this crime.
The Gustav Sonata is a story of a man who, by being true to his own humanity, will lose everything he holds dear. It is also a story of a lovely boy and his troubled mother who cannot see the treasure she has in him, and the story of a mismatched couple who fail at the first test. Through it all runs the special relationship and lifelong friendship between two sensitive boys, Gustav from a poor and loveless home and the much more privileged Anton.
One chapter in my non-fiction book examines the role of Switzerland during the Second World War, which has been severely criticised over the years. Switzerland’s record in taking in Jewish refugees during the war is mixed. Although it was one of the main routes out of Nazi territory for several years and thousands of Jews were able to transit through Switzerland or find refuge there, the border was closed against Jews in their greatest hour of need. Worst of all, in 1938 the Swiss asked the Germans to stamp the passports of Jewish citizens with a red letter J so that they could identify and turn back likely refugees without having to resort to imposing a visa requirement on all Germans. The chief of the aliens police Heinrich Rothmund welcomed the move, maintaining that he did not want Switzerland to be “swamped” by people unable to assimilate to the Swiss way of life. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Swiss President Kaspar Villiger issued a public apology for the treatment of Jewish refugees in 1995: “There is no doubt in my mind that our policy has brought guilt upon us. By introducing the so-called Jewish stamp, Germany was complying with a request made by Switzerland. At that time in an excessively narrow interpretation of our country’s interest, we made a wrong decision. The Federal Council deeply regrets this, and apologises for it, in the full knowledge that such a failure is ultimately inexcusable.”
It has to be remembered that most other European countries and the United States either imposed strict quotas on Jewish refugees or tried to restrict any Jewish immigration before and during the first half of the war. There was a change of heart but it came too late to save most European Jews.
To get back to The Gustav Sonata, and an interesting note about how novelists get their ideas. While I was reading, I was struck by how familiar the circumstances of the Perle family seemed. And then I read the acknowledgments where Tremain mentions the debt she owes to Mitya New’s 1997 book, Switzerland Unwrapped: Exposing the Myths. I came across this book during my research for my book on Switzerland. It was written by New after some years working as a Reuters journalist in Zurich. The book is a series of interviews with key Swiss individuals whose views and experiences shed light on Swiss society, narrated in the first person if I remember rightly. It is a great selection. One of the New’s subjects is Ruth Rhoduner, the daughter of Police Chief Grüniger. There is also an interview with a leading banker and a woman from a Swiss Yenish (gypsy) family who was forcible taken into care. And, another theme that feeds into the novel, a description of a day out at a Schwingen festival, a traditional Swiss wrestling sport.
Tremain’s novel is set in the fictional town of Mazlingen. I’d love to know how much time she spent in Switzerland researching this book. Did she stay in an earnest little hotel like Gustav Perle’s and go for walks through sleepy valleys dotted with cherry trees? Considering that the last novel I read by Tremain was set in New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1860s, it is possible she was able to rely purely on good research and her gift for recreating a distant place and time.
I really enjoyed how Tremain portrayed the ordinariness of Switzerland – the everyday food and drink, modest homes, plain streets and dull jobs that are hardly ever seen by tourists. Recently, I’ve been having some fun on Twitter, inviting people to post pictures using the hashtag #ordinaryswitzerland, just to remind ourselves and others that we don’t live in a spectacular film set. We tend to automatically post pretty views of our surroundings on social media. It’s been refreshing keeping an eye out for the less lovely views and watching others do the same.
Looking forward to hearing your reaction to The Gustav Sonata (or Tremain’s other novels) or any of the other themes I’ve touched on today. Have a great start to the summer!