‘Life is full of secrets’

Acclaimed Swiss author Franz Hohler on his most famous work Totemügerli, and his current projects

By Layla Haroon

Published: Mon 9 Feb 2009, 8:33 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:24 PM

IF YOU WERE to meet the acclaimed Swiss author Franz Hohler, you might be forgiven for wondering how he balances his life between being a realistic writer and an artist.

ìI believe in the contrary of what George Orwell said: ‘One can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality’. The inspiration for writing can be the wish to tell something realistic that happened to me or others, but I always need to express the situation myself in my own words.î

Hohler has published 200 delightful, spine-chilling, witty, moving and poignant everyday stories during his 40 years of dedication to the art of literature.

Today, he is town to read short stories from his complete works, including Das Ende eines ganz normalen Tages (The end of a normal day), Die Karawane an Boden des Milchkrugs (The caravan on the ground of the milk pot) and Vom richtigen Gebrauch der Zeit (The use of time).

He speaks to City Times about his most famous work Totemügerli, and about the current projects he is working on.

What guiding principles do you espouse when you embark on a new project?

Focus as much as possible on the issue of the new project. If I’m writing a book, I prefer writing a book. If I’m writing for stage or film, I prefer this kind of writing, and above all to perform, what I’ve written. I believe that often literature is in advance of reality, inventing and telling stories - which happen later. From time to time I have a little satirical radio programme. Last Saturday, I told the story of the English milkman Robert Holding, aged 72, who also sold his clients portions of marjuana and will be on trial this week. It reminded me of a satirical song in the fifties by American songwriter Tom Lehrer, ìThe old dope peddlerî, which I translated into Swiss dialect and performed it to shape this fact!

What are you reading right now?

A novel by the Egyptian author Gamal al-Ghitani, Seini Barakat – in a German translation. In the nineties, I heard Gamal-al-Gitani read in Switzerland. I bought this book but never read it. As he is an author of Arab culture, I thought this is an adequate lecture before visiting the Emirates. It tells the story of 16th century Egypt, about the secret police of Cairo, and it’s astonishingly thrilling.

Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

Franz Kafka and Robert Walser! Kafka constantly shifts from real to surreal. Swiss author Robert Walser absolutely trusts in his own associations to what he lived in reality. Among the humouristic ones, figures like the poet Joachim Ringelnatz or the comic actor and writer Karl Valentin were my influences. Ringelnatz is an author who sees the poetic side behind normal life, and Karl Valentin is a master of comic dialogues, who slowly transforms reality into absurdity.

What was the book that most influenced your life — and why?

When I was eight years old, I read from my father’s library Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. It showed me that the world of phantasm can be described as vivid and as normal as the so-called reality, and it encouraged me to write phantasmic stories myself.

How would you describe Totemügerli?

Totemügerli is a six-minute parody of the Swiss dialect of Berne, which can only be estimated, if you are familiar with the dialect. I invented a lot of dialect words, which sound like original words. The text got very popular in Switzerland, and some of the invented words since flew back into the vocabulary of everyday Bernese dialect. ìTotemügerliî was not so difficult to research, because I just invented a language.

Did you really expect the response you received for Totemügerli?

I was quite surprised. You can never foresee which of your works will be a hit. Otherwise we would all write one hit after the other.

Which part of researching for Die Steinflut (The Stone Flood) was the most personally interesting to you?

I had very interesting research for this book, which describes a mountain slide that took part in 1881 in Elm, Switzerland. It killed more than 100 people. I describe it through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl, who survived it, because she had a presentiment that it would happen, while all the grown-ups closed their eyes in view of the danger. As it is a true story, I had some very touching interviews with some people, who had known that girl as an old woman.

Es Klopft means ‘it’s knocking’. How does the title of your book reflect the underlying theme of its story?

The plot involves a doctor who lets himself be seduced by a woman, who wants a child from him. The woman disappears from his life, but years later his son presents his new girlfriend, who looks exactly like the woman with whom he had a child. As he never said a word to his wife about it he is not able to do so now. He sets about trying to find out if the young woman is his daughter. It’s urgent, because his son and the woman are having a baby and want to get married.

The first idea to ìEs klopftî was the following scene: A man is sitting in a train which starts to leave the station, and suddenly a woman is knocking from outside on his window, running some steps with the train. The man doesn’t know her and asks himself, what she might have wanted from him. Trying to find out the background of this scene, I started to write a novel.

The novel is full of suspense and twists. Are secrets something that interests you?

Of course! Life is full of secrets and mysteries, which we often oversee, perhaps because we are afraid of the irrational.

The most recent collection of stories, The End of a Perfectly Normal Day brings the idea that we only need a tiny thing to put our lives completely out of kilter. What were your inspirations?

The first story describes, how a man (myself), walking through the city of Basel to an appointment, stumbles, falls down on the street, and heavily sprains his foot, so he is scarcely able to walk on, and he realises, that this will change not only his next plans, but also his future ones. An abnormal end of a perfectly normal day!

Another is 9/11. I describe, how I got the news that airplanes crashed into World Trade Centre. It surprised me, as nearly everybody, on a perfectly normal day. So the inspiration for this kind of stories is just what happened yesterday, or what happens today, or what will happen tomorrow.

Can you share with us the current project you are working on?

The next book to be published will be a book of my collected children’s stories, entitled Das grosse Buch (The big book). It’s already finished, and I think the next one will contain short stories.

I just finished one, called The Fourth King. It’s about the three kings of the Orient who came to worship Jesus Christ. In many Swiss villages there is a custom that three men, disguised as kings, go singing from one house to the next on January 6. In my story, there is a fourth king with them.

If we were to ask you the three ‘Good to Know’ facts about you, what would you say?

Good to know? For me it’s good to know that I succeeded. Firstly, I was born in 1943. Secondly, I attended Zurich University as a language student, but didn’t finish my studies. Instead, I started a one-man-show and published my first book and decided to try life as an artist and writer. Thirdly, my first job was, when I still went to school, playing cello at funerals. At a certain point, before finishing college, I was bored by learning things which didn’t interest me. So I decided to really focus on what was interesting me, and that was music, literature, theatre, and writing.

Which is the best time of the day when you get the best creative output?

You won’t believe it: it’s morning.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors?

Don’t hesitate to write down your ideas.

Recently you were awarded Zurich Art Prize and Salzburger Stier, can you imagine retiring in the future or do you think you will always be working?

As long as it’s fun and as long as I have ideas and as long as I’m well, I hope to continue working. But I think I should do a bit less.

Event Details

What: An evening with Swiss author Franz Hohler

Where: Goethe Institute Gulf Region, Abu Dhabi

When: February 9


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