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Dean

[This page by Seán Williams]

Martin R. Dean

Martin R. Dean is an author who has written extensively about Swiss identity, in a global and particularly post-colonial context. He was born to a Swiss mother and a father from Trinidad in Menziken, Switzerland. Much of his work obviously stems from personal experience and tracing his family history; but it is intended, too, as cultural criticism. Together with contemporary authors Thomas Hettche, Matthias Politycki, and Michael Schindhelm, Dean published the manifesto ‘Was soll der Roman?‘ (‘And what about the novel?’) in the German national broadsheet Die Zeit in 2005, playing on the Neue Mitte (‘middle way’) political movement and arguing for both the literary and social relevance of the novel form for the mainstream. He has since published regular essays in the press — primarily the Swiss broadsheet the Neue Zürcher Zeitung — and, at the time of writing (November 2016), he has published eight novels, among other works. 

Ein Koffer voller Wünsche (2011; A Suitcase Full of Wishes)

Perhaps the most interesting place to start within Dean’s oeuvre for those setting out to explore (Swiss)-German culture is his sixth novel, Ein Koffer voller Wünsche (2011; A Suitcase Full of Wishes). The protagonist, Filip, is born in Switzerland and is of Indian heritage on his father’s side – though he grew up not knowing his father. Filip is over forty, has not yet settled down and, so the cliché goes, he has not embraced Swissness. Indeed, as Martin R. Dean writes in his latest long essay ‘Verbeugung vor Spiegeln: Über das Eigene und das Fremde’ (2015; ‘Reflections in Mirrors: On the Self and the Other’), ‘das Schweizersein bleibt meinen Figuren verweigert’ (‘my characters are denied being comfortably Swiss’). Filip’s girlfriend, Maia, 37, is a teacher from a wealthy family committed to the local area and against the EU. She lives in Lucerne and desires to stay there: she loves the mountains, the lakes, and an orderly existence. Maia wants to get married, whereas Filip is hesitant. That the Swiss want to settle to such an extent is a popular national cliché. 

Filip packs his bags and travels to London in 1999, where he hopes to come to greater clarity about his own life, and about their relationship together. He takes a job in a travel agency that specialises in ‘selling Switzerland’, and Martin Dean thereby compounds the novel’s clichéd content via the tourist industry. For Filip promotes a Gotthelf Schweiz of Alpine peaks, cowbells, spas, chocolate and such like. It is a Switzerland of traditional costumes which Indian tourists keenly try on; a rural kitsch mediated by Gotthelf quotations in tourist brochures and his novels left for tourists in chalets, as well as by the Gotthelf films directed by Franz Schnyder, which first appeared on the centenary of Gotthelf’s death in 1954. It is a kitschy national identity sold as ‘Swissness’ — a concept other authors, such as Hugo Loetscher, have criticised (http://www.nzz.ch/bin-ich-als-schweizer-zu-swissness-verpflichtet-1.797025)

As Filip’s boss, André is reported to acknowledge about himself: ‘Wenn er seine heutige Tätigkeit kritisch beurteile, dann tue er nichts anderes als Klischees herzustellen’ (‘if he judged his day’s activities critically, he’s doing nothing other than producing clichés’). As such, the constructed nature of the Swiss idyll sold to tourists is not only emphasised in Dean’s novel, but also examined critically. To this end, Dean alludes to events back in Switzlerland that threaten the tourist industry’s idyllic image of Heimatkitsch: news of the Raubgoldaffäre, or capital deposited by Nazi institutions in Switzerland during the Second World War, which was investigated by the Unabhängige Expertenkommission Schweiz – Zweiter Weltkrieg (UEK; Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War, ICE) from 1996 to 2002; skinheads attacking asylum centres; or the protagonist’s fears that his African clients may not be served in a Swiss watchmaker’s shop on account of racism (encountered in real life in 2013, when Oprah Winfrey attempted to buy a luxury handbag in Zurich, which is discussed in Dean’s aforementioned essay of 2015). 

Moreover, the geographical distance of London as a site for the protagonist’s reflections on Switzerland – and critical reflections on Swiss clichés – is itself depicted in a clichéd, yet self-consciously ironic, vocabulary of colonialist travel literature. The most frequent word used to describe the city is exotisch due to its post-colonial multiculturalism: veiled Muslim women, men smoking outside pubs at midday, the bustle of Whitechapel – the Southbank with street-sellers and a fortune teller described as a Zigeuner. The irony of such an Othering, outdated discourse that celebrates diversity as exciting, as exotic, is made evident by other, disturbing allusions to immigrant life in the UK. At the beginning of the novel, Filip reads of a stowaway that had fallen from the sky and was discovered dead near Sheffield; this becomes a recurring thought, even nightmare, throughout the book. What’s more, the precarious existence of immigrants on their arrival to Britain is narrated by the graveyard attendant at Golders Green, as Filip finds the spot where his father is buried after having emigrated to Britain. And finally, just as Gotthelf is explicitly (and ironically) mentioned throughout the story, Ein Koffer voller Wünsche makes an implicit, ironic reference to Gottfried Keller’s classic Swiss story Pankraz, der Schmoller (1856, ‘Pankraz The Sulker’), the protagonist of which went abroad to escape the humdrum daily life of his Swiss village, joining the British army before going to lands coded as exotic – including East India – and returning with a lion skin, to settle down in Swiss village life, after all. 

In this way, arguments of tolerance towards what might be perceived as untypical, or un-traditional, Swiss lifestyles, and an embrace of a different model, can re-introduce a clichéd exoticizing discourse – an exoticism that is the product of the intolerance we otherwise seek to counteract. Thus Dean’s book is an ironic work of immanently clichéd critique, bound in cliché because of the protagonist’s constant state of feeling an outsider to authenticity and therefore, perhaps, his impossibility to access the insider language of (stereotyped) Swiss identity that Filip’s girlfriend, Maia, represents.

Further Reading

Seán M. Williams, ‘On Clichés, Post-Colonialism, and the Politicisation of Swiss Literature: An Interview with Martin R. Dean’, German Life and Letters 70:2 (2017), 284-90

Web Links in German

The author’s personal website

‘Was soll der Roman?‘ (2005, ‘And what about the novel?’)