Shortlisted for the 2011 Swiss Book Prize

Translated by Donal McLaughlin

At the heart of this quirky and good-natured novel is a serious political issue – that of immigration to Switzerland. Reading the wikipedia page on the subject, there appears to have been one referendum after the next in recent years, with the most recent narrowly voting for limitations and quotas on the numbers of immigrants from the European Union. The book is set in 1970, the year the Swiss narrowly rejected the popular initiative against foreign infiltration.

Enter a 5-year old narrator, who is in the process of being adopted. She’s not Swiss; she doesn’t even talk German. So not only does she have to grapple with new – and often very confusing circumstances – she doesn’t have the words to explain the intricacies of the situations she encounters. My father bought me from the council for 365 francs is her opening gambit, which is a little confusing until the context of the adoption asserts itself.

She is in every sense of the word the Grünschnabel (greenhorn or beginner) of the Swiss title, endearingly translated whippersnapper in the text by McLaughlin. She learns the new language by collecting and sorting German words into matchboxes. She has a strained relationship with her adoptive parents, particularly with her highly-strung mother, who is always swallowing her hellish misery pills. Happily she bonds well with her adoptive grandfather, Tat, the secret main character of the novel according to the author. Her world is populated by many immigrants, whose livelihoods are uncertain due to their temporary work permits. Her confidant is Snow White – a cuddly white rabbit.

Whippersnapper’s naivety injects comedy in the most unexpected places. Where else would you get political commentary like this?

The landlord sympathised with the foreigners …… He’d nothing against them wanting to increase in size.

“A pleasure shared is twice as great,” he said.

The foreigners understood him.

They called Eli (a Spanish bricklayer), and he erected a wall, made two flats out of one. Following which the landlord’s pleasure was twice as great and the foreigners’ was shared.

Monica Cantieni and Donal McLaughlin at the CCA, Glasgow 16.09.14

In other places the comedy is Kafkaesque. Tat is a double leg amputee, who, by a quirk of fate, has ended up with two artificial right legs. The insurance company has two legs on file, and so refuses to give Tat a third. Even the child can see the stupidity in this.

Underneath, however, are the serious issues. A child of one of the immigrant family friends is forced to live in a wardrobe, because she is not permitted to stay on her father’s permit. Whippersnapper must come to terms with life and death. It is obvious from the start that her beloved grandfather is fragile, on a downhill trajectory. There’s a funeral taking place as she arrives at her new home, resulting in an early philosophical conversation with her adoptive father about death. (Interestingly this was the first scene written, following the funeral of the author’s friend). The novel ends with her grandfather’s wake. The question to be answered is, did the man who together with Whippersnapper, created the eponymous Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons (or good arguments and reasonings), have enough time to ensure that his granddaughter could find her place in this strange new world without him?