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Melinda Nadj Abonji
Melinda Nadj Abonji was born in 1968 in a Hungarian minority community in the Vojvodina, which at the time was part of Yugoslavia and now lies within Serbia. She moved to Switzerland with her parents in 1973, going on to study in Zurich before she began to write and become a musician. Nadj Abonji rose to prominence as an author in 2010, when she won both the Swiss and the German Book Awards – for her second novel, Tauben fliegen auf (‘pigeons fly away’). It is a lyrical work of long sentences, and yet a book with political punch – though little plot.
Tauben fliegen auf is in part a story of relations across three generations of the Kocsis family (a ‘Familienroman’ or ‘Generationenroman’). In part it is about fragmented memories – of childhood holidays spent with extended family in the ‘homeland’, as well as memories of trauma during the regime changes in the region, from fascism to nationalism via communism, and passed down as stories from relatives. And Tauben fliegen auf is also in part a characterization of immigrant experience in Switzerland. Whereas the protagonist’s parents work hard to assimilate themselves in a Swiss village, running a local laundry and then a café, Ildikó (Ildi), the protagonist, rebels at a society that, at times, stereotypes the Balkans in the media and everyday conversation. It is a society that can be aggressively racist. For towards the end of the novel, Ildi must confront and clean away faeces, smeared on the wall of the men’s loo in the family’s café. So critical of the cultural superiority assumed by some Swiss people, she moves away from her parent’s home and village to her own small flat on a city’s bypass.
The political backdrop to Tauben fliegen auf is therefore twofold. First, the reader will be helped by some basic knowledge of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Conflict and suffering is experienced second-hand by Ildi, via rare phone calls from relatives abroad, some of whom are forcibly enlisted to fight for the Serbian Slobodan Milošević’s regime. The wars, too, are experienced through her love affair with Dalibor, a Serbian refugee. Pigeons are a recurring motif throughout the text, made into soup by grandmother Mamika and bred by her cousin Béla in the Vojvodina, or gathering around a Swiss railway station, made nervous by rushing passengers. Pigeons stand in, in a sense, for migration, and for the way migrants are treated.
Second, a little knowledge of Swiss German and its political culture is useful. Ildi’s mother confuses the popular expression in German tipp topp and instead says topp tipp, to the chagrin of Ildi’s little sister. The slur Scheiß Ausländer (‘sh**ty foreigner’) is rendered in dialect, Schissusländer. The novel reflects on the peculiarities of the Swiss political and immigration systems – which involves direct democracy in the former case, and both an exam and a vote in the ‘Gemeinde’, or local political district, in the latter. The book explores immigrants’ experience of the most famous and divisive referendum in Switzerland, the ‘Schwarzenbach-Initiative’ of 1970. This was an unsuccessful proposal put forward to the national vote by James Schwarzenbach, who wanted to limit the number of resident foreigners in the country to 10%, which would have meant mass deportations. And the book charts the subsequent rise of the Swiss nationalist, or ‘people’s’ party (Schweizerische Volkspartei), whose name Ildi’s father finds comical – for to him it sounds communist. Indeed, there are other comparisons between Switzerland and the ethnic divisions of the political situation in the Balkans in the narrative. For example, Ildi asks: ‘Unsere Gäste, sind sie deutsche Schweizer oder schweizerische Deutsche?’ (‘Our café’s customers, are they German Swiss people or Swiss Germans?’).
Much of contemporary Swiss literature in German examines immigrant experiences. Tauben fliegen auf is an especially complex and aesthetically exceptional example. It also departs from Swiss novels by Martin Dean, for instance, which critique general societal clichés and instead emphasises — to the same political end — the emotional and linguistic experiences of the individual.
Fly Away, Pigeon, translated by Tess Lewis (Seagull Books, 2015).
Video in German