Lost and found at the Swiss book festival

While Morges Book Festival emphasizes its international range, the second Sion Book Fair was a festival of Swiss authors, and travel-writing in particular. Our stay-at-home contributing editor Peter Hulm set off to report on it. Inevitably, he got lost.

The Swiss dialect translators

It might seem perverse to go to a book festival for the films. But I had a reason. Two, in fact. The Festival du Livre Suisse, newly installed in the beautifully restored Arsenaux of Sion, had so many events during its three days any visitor was bound to miss most.

The films I wanted to see were about the high mountains of Asia, a major interest of several Global-Geneva writers and readers, as I discovered at a party a few days before.

In addition, a Swiss theatre group with several migrants (including Afghans) were going to read from a key Swiss travel record entitled “Two women alone in Afghanistan” forefronting two intrepid women explorers of the 1930s, ethnologist Ella Maillart (who made her home in the Valais) and Annemarie Schwarzenbach.

So much for the plan. But first I went to Sierre. I didn’t know it had an arsenal, but there was a session on Rilke, which for me meant this Mediterranean Valais town.

There I discovered my mistake. But not before I’d had a plate of Thai noodles in a cheap and cheery chop shop on the High Street frequented by lots of Asians, and had trolled the major stores in search of a tube squeezer for our dogs’ favourite treats, Le Parfait liver paste (no luck).

The nice young woman at the Sierre Tourist Office told me the festival was in Sion. I was like Columbus. He landed in the Bahamas in 1492 and thought it was Asia. When he asked the locals how to find gold, they pointed him off to Cuba, a long way away with no gold. No wonder Columbus never made it to the mainland.

As a result, I lost the chance to see the scheduled first film, Les Seyneurs d’Aryana, the smuggler nomads of Afghanistan, by Jean Bourgeois. I didn’t see any signs to the Arsenal or the Festival at Sion Station. But I knew pretty much where it was and set off on foot.

The building with two large banners for the festival turned out to be locked. I walked back and round the corner into a building site. Lots of people were sitting outside at metal tables in the sun with soft drinks and having an obvious good time in front of a gleaming newly painted building. No sign of the book fair but who cares? I climbed the steps and went inside.

Beside a huge and welcoming bar were shelves with more magazines than I could imagine anyone wanting to read. And there, under the fluorescent lights in the main hall, was the book festival with its 3000 books from Payot’s collection on sale for visitors.

A platform at the back and about 50 chairs, pretty much all taken, brought a succession of authors to the podium each hour to sit and talk about their experiences.

Another area, called Le Pli (the fold) offered a less formal circle for discussions with authors. What I missed there, since it clashed with the film, was a presentation by the two latest translators of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince into Upper-Valais dialect and Vaudois patois.

But luckily, they were sitting at a table together, and I was able to get dedicated copies of Le Pitit Prinço and Der chlii Prinz. Another lesson for travellers: it’s not what you miss, it’s what you find.

The latest editions

Another lesson: you always miss something important. For example, Pascale Kramer, winner of the Grand Prix Suisse of Literature for 2017, was on a platform a couple of hours before with Laurence Boissier, winner of the 2017 Swiss Prize for Literature.

If I had ignored them, I could have taken part in a workshop about using watercolours to illustrate my travel journal. If I had neglected Le Petit Prince or the Afghan smugglers film I could have taken a workshop on romance and fantasy writing. For children on Saturday there were sessions on Swiss folk tales and legends, travel writing for children, a workshop on the first books a child could read, and Nicolas Bouvier (a famous Swiss travel writer) for children.

In the main hall, I was able to find a seat when Alex Capus came to the platform to talk about “Voyageur sous les étoiles” (Traveller under the Stars). His book follows in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson who spent his final years seeking a healthier climate against tuberculosis in Samoa.

Alex pointed out that Stevenson in later life was no pleasure traveller or adventure seeker, despite having written Treasure Island. But he did write Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, “a beautiful book”.

Like Le Petit Prince, which now exists in over 100 translations, Stevenson’s Cevennes travel book has become something of an industry in itself, with a permanent exhibition about his trip on show in Le Monastier, where he started his trip. In its latest catalogue, the UK’s Folio Society is currently advertising a two-volume set of The Little Prince with restorations of the original 40 watercolours and 36 sketches in a companion commentary volume for £49.95*.

Metin Arditi: a good read

My most enriching encounter was with a former foreigner who has just published a series of short essays on Switzerland. Metin Arditi, a Swiss writer of Turkish origin has written a Dictionnaire amoureux de la Suisse (Loving Dictionary of Switzerland). In 600 pages he takes you from Alinghi to Zurich. It’s probably the only guide to Switzerland a French person might need, and maybe worth learning French to be able to read it.

At 72 Arditi knows his Switzerland. He was 11 years in a Swiss boarding school, studied nuclear physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, earned an Masters in Business Administration from Stanford, and has taught physics, economics and creative writing at the Institute.

He has even won a Jean Giono prize for his 2011 novel Le Turquetto. He founded “The Instruments of Peace Foundation”, offering musical education to children of Palestine and Israel. UNESCO special envoy for intercultural dialogue, he created another Arditi foundation on this issue in September 2014.

A Turkish Jew, at 21 he married a Greek woman. “It was a kind of Romeo and Juliet story,” he recalls. “There were lots of tears at the wedding, but not of joy.”

His book of love has a section on Geneva traffic jams: “Geneva has failed where Marseille has succeeded,” he points out. He notes that Geneva once had a Rue de la Blanchisserie (Laundering Street) that had to change its name when a bank established itself there.

Describing Geneva as “a superb city I love very much”, he also labels it “the mosaic city” for its mixture of nationalities and cultures.

But it’s not just a book of bon mots. He offers an extended guide to Geneva’s museums, including:

  • The Ariana, astonishing in its grandeur, contrasting with the austerely simple Red Cross museum across the road
  • The Patek Philippe, “best museum of horology in the world”
  • Barbier Mueller’s collection of primitive art, “one of the best that exist”
  • Martin Bodmer, “one of the most extraordinary collections of manuscripts on the planet”
  • Le Musée Baur with its exquisite Chinese porcelain collection
  • The Ethnographic Museum, which shows only 1000 of its 80,000 pieces from 100 cultures, but containing a music room where you can list to 15,000 hours of recordings.

Arditi tells you his 10 favourite wines. Gamaret from Geneva is there, but the most refined Pinot Noir, he asserts comes, from the Grisons not the Valais.

You can learn his top 10 cheeses from the 500+ available. Mature Gruyère (aged 24 months) “claims, not without reason, to be the king of cheeses,” he tells us, but says it goes best half-and-half with the Fribourg variety in a fondue.

On the way you can read about Basel (“royal”), Berne (“charming”), apprenticeships, Geneva lawyer Marc Bonnant, Heidi and Frankenstein in the same piece, Crans (“the most inviting mountain scenery” of the Alps) and even the “majestic yet simple” Château Mercier in Sierre and Rilke in the Valais.

But no entry for Sion. The capital of the Valais has some surprising corners, nevertheless.
At Sion’s Coop megastore I learned that hairdressers use tube squeezers and that Sion has a professional supplies shop.

Travellers know you can find what you want in the oddest places.

*My favourite Petit Prince spin-off is by Jean-Philippe Ravoux and published by Marabout in 2015: Giving a meaning to existence: or Why Le Petit Prince is the greatest metaphysical treatise of the 20th century (in French). Beat that for a title!

As for the Afghanistan stories, what can I say? Read the books. My recommendation (not found in Sion): Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey through three decades of war in Afghanistan. By Edward Girardet (familiar to Global Geneva readers) – Published by Chelsea Green, September, 2011/Revised 2012. Available on Chelsea Green Publishing, Amazon.com, and Barnes and Noble.

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