Monique Schwitter

Books | Goldfish Memory by Monique Schwitter

Parthian Books, £8.99

Goldfish Memory is a collection of short stories from the award-winning Swiss writer, Monique Schwitter. With Goldfish Memory, we are given the first translation of her work – Goldfischgedachtnis – which gives us readers who solely understand the English language the opportunity to finally delve into Schwitter’s work and identify with the praise and admiration she has been receiving since 2005, for her first collection of short stories, Wenn’s schneit beim Krokodil.

The main strap-line for the collection is: ‘What does it mean to have a connection with someone?’ which plunges the reader into the premise of the book; relationships gone awry, missing familial figureheads, loneliness, independent female characters, and journeys – mental and physical – that lead to portentous endings. Schwitter manages to take these difficult and (potentially) corrosive themes and grinds and carves them down into deep, intrinsical narratives that both embrace and punish the reader simultaneously. One moment you could be sharing a tranquil memory a character holds dear, but the next moment you will be wincing as a profound sense of loss leers into the plot.

The first story, ‘Our Story’, is a poignant and resonant piece which focuses on the friendship between two women. One is dying with cancer, while the other is struggling to come to terms with this and thinks of all the bad aspects of her friend’s character which slowly morph into the good memories. Through this, and the streamlined dialogue between the characters, Schwitter manages to create two characters that are relatable to the reader. An example of the punchy narrative is:

I heard nothing from her for a week. She was offended. Then she wrote me a inordinately long, angry letter, which was, for the most part, unreadable. Finally, she invited me to eat ice cream and forgave me. Until the next night-time phone call.

The translator, Eluned Gramich, also deserves kudos here for doing a fine job of translating the whole book from German and for allowing the collection to unfold seamlessly.

‘The Pit’ is a story which moves quickly given the context – an aging actress with a fading memory who’s travelling to her haven to ‘work’ – but Monique Schwitter creates an intriguing character with many likeable and unlikeable flaws. We trace her journey to her haven, her island, through fast-paced narrative and dialogue but are left with a stark ending – provoking ideas of what the character will do next. The image of the aging actress running naked through the darkness with the lighthouse swathing its beams along the beach and shore, the final act of the piece, is poetic and cinematic, and can be imagined as a brilliant piece of stimuli for writers and artists alike.

The prize here is the story, ‘Goldfish Memory’. The first paragraph is ominous, especially the line: ‘…a powerful internal wintry assault of freezing puddles and black ice.’ Schwitter manages to alert the reader that this piece is going to be a particularly cut-throat and jaw-clenching story by that single line, which shows the nous and eminence of her style.

We also encounter singular lines within the story which could almost be set into poetry. ‘I often said my father was dead. But it’s not true.’ ‘I often dreamt that my father was dead. I woke up screaming because of it, according to witnesses.’ ‘I was often sure my father was dead, but then he’d appear in some unexpected corner’, are a few examples of these lines, which re-iterate the narrator’s ominous tone and solidifies that the narrator is unreliable, which adds enigma to the piece. We find the narrator unreliable as there are a lot of mentions about the father being dead, but we find out that he is anything but which is both intriguing and mystifying.

‘Goldfish Memory’ is an outstanding piece of narrative that discusses tumultuous family life with a breeziness that seems low on context but it is jammed with difficult context and is rife in familiar ‘father’ issues that Schwitter excels at.

‘Andante Con Moto’ feels like a story where nothing happens yet a lot happens. Its deep, almost never-ending content allows the reader to imagine the characters’ lives ongoing even when the story ends. The story continues with the theme of loss, family issues and aloof males. The theme of religion spruces the story up; without that theme, the story meanders on, remaining static.

‘White and Black’ is an oddity of a story with lingering emotions of past male figures who are dead. The narrator ends up having sex with an ‘angel’ who she sees in different locations throughout the piece. The ‘angel’ seems to be a figment of her imagination until the physicality of their relationship begins and the ‘angel’ is supposed to represent a male who has barely any masculine qualities apart from his ‘dick’ (as it’s referred to). Our conscience leaves the story much like the ‘angel’ does. The words rap at our throat and leave us gasping for more but Schwitter leaves us dead. We don’t matter. The essence is that the story remains.

The ‘you’ within ‘White and Black’ sums up the whole collection –

…my You, his You, the You of the walls which pile on top of each other to create a rising, giant You.

All the ‘You’s’ are the stories in this collection which build on top of each other to create a crescendo of inner, outer, and contextual thoughts of what the stories mean.

This collection ends with the quote: ‘You can do with what you like.’ An extremely fitting and relevant end to the book, which allows the reader to do what they like with the stories: twist, chew, provoke, weep, breathe; and that’s the aim. Imagination flies high here but could be let down with a single pinprick which Monique Schwitter holds ever so gently. Gladly, though, we’re not allowed to fall and our imagination stays swaying up high with each character, theme and plot; lingering in the mind like a foreign definition of your favourite word.