Peaks Of Imagination: Speculative And Fantastic Fiction In Romansh

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

Among the super-minority languages of Europe, there is one, Romansh, which may count itself as one of the richest in literary terms on the continent, at least relative to the small number of its speakers. They barely amount to fifty thousand, but looking at their literature, we will be astonished not only by the large number of works published, but also and above all by their quality, as suggested by their translations into other languages, firstly into German, but also into French, Romanian, and even English. One of them is already an undisputed classic of the postmodern fiction of our century, Arno Camenisch’s Sez Ner (The Alp,[1] 2009), just as Gian Fontana’s short novel about rural xenophobia and its totalitarian manifestation, “Il president da Valdei” (The Mayor of Valdei, 1935), is a classic of 20th-century fiction.

Both works belong to the genre of rural realist fiction that predominates in Romansh literature, as would be appropriate for a language spoken in small villages in various valleys of the Swiss canton of Graubünden. However, fantasy and speculative literature (or, rather, literatures) have also been brilliantly cultivated. In fact, to speak of a unified Romansh language or literature is not entirely accurate, as there are several regional linguistic standards with their corresponding literatures. Rumantsch Grischun, which is used by the cantonal and Federal administration, is a recent syncretic linguistic standard which does not correspond to any particular dialect and whose literature is, in any case, limited. Romansh literature is expressed in three main regional variants: Surmiran (surmiran, spoken in the Surmeir area situated in the centre of Graubünden), Ladin (ladin, spoken in the Swiss county by the Inn river called Engadine, a variety sub-divided into two subregional standards, the Southern one, called puter, and the Northern one, called vallader) and Sursilvan (sursilvan, in Surselva, in the valley of the Anterior Rhine, which extends from the source of the river to the vicinity of the cantonal capital Chur).

These main three standards of the Raetho-Romance Swish group have a similar relationship to each other as Gascon, Occitan (which has two concurrent rules, Provençal and Languedocian) and Catalan do in the Southern Gallo-Romance group, with Catalan as the most powerful, orthographically and grammatically stable, and culturally relevant language. In Romansh, mutatis mutandis, Sursilvan, the language of the aforementioned Fontana and Camenisch, would be equivalent to Catalan within the Rhaeto-Romance group, which also includes the Ladin dialects of the Dolomites in South Tyrol, now part of Italy. For this reason, this overview of speculative and fantastic fiction in Romansh focuses on Sursilvan, although it should not be forgotten that there are also works of great interest in the other varieties, including in Dolomitic Ladin. For example, their traditional oral literature is allegedly the origin of the legendary matter of the kingdom of Fanes, which has all the characteristics of high fantasy. Unfortunately, this rich mythological and heroic matter, which could rival that which inspired the Finnish Kalevala (1835/1849), seems to be nothing more than a display of fakelore, and even an example of cultural appropriation. It was first published in 1913 by the folklorist Karl Felix Wolff in German, under the title Das Reich der Fanes (The Kingdom of Fanes), but the compiler omitted to include a single line of it in one or the other of the Ladino dialects in which he claimed it had been orally transmitted. Later, there have been several versions of the legend in German and Italian, but only one in Dolomitic Ladin, Angel Morlang’s tragedy Fanes da Zacan (Fanes from Days Gone, 1951).

There are no legends, genuine or false, resembling those of the Fanes in the proper Romansh Kulturdialekte, which are the Surmiran standard and the two varieties of Engadine Ladin. The local production of fantasy is an artistic and individual endeavour. In Surmeir, there is a portal fantasy novel Sindoria (Sindoria, 2013) by Dominique Dosch, which takes place in parallel in our primary world and in a secondary world designated by the name in the title. In Engadine, one of the modern classics is a humorous and acerbic roman à clef entitled La renaschentscha dals Patagons (The Revival of the Patagons, 1949). The Patagonians of the title are none other than the Romansh exposed to the activism of certain intellectuals who would have wished to import the premises and methods of European ethno-nationalism to the region, following above all the Catalan models. Rather than the narrative itself, the most interesting part of the book is perhaps the series of fictional non-fiction reports on the imaginary country of the Patagonians, its organisation and customs. Years later, Ladin writers from Engadine led the modernisation of fantastic and speculative literature in the Romansh-speaking region thanks to a couple of short-story collections by Clo Duri Bezzola and Ana Pitschna Grob-Ganzoni, respectively. The former, entitled Da l’otra vart da la saiv (On the Other Side of the Edge, 1960), includes a masterful fantastic tale entitled “Tube to Nowhere” (Tube to Nowhere), which is set on a London Underground train that ends up in an undefined and mysterious Kafkaesque space. The second, entitled Ballas de savon (Soap Bubbles, 1970), is composed of three short stories: a high fantasy entitled “La clav dal paradis” (The Key to Paradise), a theological fantasy entitled “Ormas dal diavel” (Devil’s Souls) and a highly original science fiction entitled “Inua vi?” (Where?), which takes place on a spaceship and is narrated in the first person by a woman whose emotions are expressed in a highly poetic style that makes this text an outstanding example of lyrical SF prose narration.

In Sursilvan there is a large amount of genuine oral literature, sometimes of pagan origin, such as the short aetiological myths featuring wild men that Caspar Decurtins collected in 1901, in the same volume in which he published the “Canzun da sontga Margriata” (The Song of Saint Margriata), the best-known Romansh folk narrative poem. Despite her name, the main character seems to be a fertility goddess who passes herself off as a shepherd and, after her true sex is discovered (to speak of gender would be anachronistic here), abandons the fields, which become barren. A similar plot is used by other texts conceived as artistic literature, but which are presented as folk texts, such as the tale “Il nurser da Ranasca e la diala nursera” (The Shepherd from Ranasca and the Fairy Shepherdess, 1941) by Guglielm Gadola, and the poem “La diala” (The Fairy, 1925) by Gian Fontana, the brevity and concision of which make its story of the abuse of a fairy by shepherds in a mythical time all the more atrocious.

Other folktales collected by Decurtins were used in a modern Romansh Decameron, set in the Middle Ages and entitled Historias dil Munt Sogn Gieri (Stories from Mount Saint George, 1916), authored by Flurin Camathias. The stories included are for the most part gracefully versified renditions of local folktales that follow the conventional motifs and plots of the fairy tale. We even encounter the traditional combat between knights and dragons, though told with pleasant humour. An exception is “Il sogn cristal” (The Holy Cristal), which describes a Catholic mystical vision related to the Holy Grail.

Whereas Camathias versified oral tales in prose, Sep Mudest Nay did the opposite by developing in prose a popular song (even in our days) entitled “Il salep e la furmicla” (The Grasshopper and the Ant), which Nay turned into a tragicomic, almost neo-realist tale, despite its fabulous subject matter and insect characters. This is perhaps the best-known example of a whole series of stories featuring animals as allegorical figures of humans, as in Gian Fontana’s story “Corvin e Corvina” (Corvin and Corvina, 1971), or living in a fictional secondary world embedded in nature in the manner of Rudyard Kipling’s beast fantasies, as it is the case in Rico Tamburnino’s books entitled Igl uaul grond (The Big Forest, 1988) and Ratuzin (Ratuzin, 1990).

The Sursilvan fantasies mentioned so far are closely related to forms of oral literature, even if their writing is not, since the authors generally strive to offer literary versions, stylistically and structurally much more sophisticated than the folk texts themselves. They are works of literary art, not mere transcribed folklore, as befits a literature that had achieved standardisation by the end of the 19th century, during the so-called Renaschientscha revivalist period, parallel in some ways to that of the Catalan Renaixença. That normalisation, which at first followed (neo)Romantic patterns also in Surselva, became gradually more modernised in its literary outlook. The process was, however, rather slow. Highly original symbolist fantastic prose poems such as “Verdad” (Truth) and “Buntad” (Goodness), were published in 1971, decades after the death of their author, Gian Fontana. A fantastic tale as innovative as Gian Caduff’s “L’uldauna” (The Undine, 1924), which combines psychological fiction, allegory and pagan legend, went virtually unnoticed.

The full alignment of Surselvan literature with modern international trends in speculative fiction was, in fact, something that took place after the Second World War. The main architect of this was Toni Halter. In 1955 he published Culan da Crestaulta (Culan from Crestaulta), a novel set in the Rhaetian Alps in proto-historic times. Its hero, Culan, manages to bring the technology of bronze metallurgy to his village, Crestaulta, which was technologically still in the Neolithic period, after numerous adventures that Halter narrates in a perfectly balanced way between fast-paced action, with hunting and war scenes and even a criminal intrigue, and the detailed recreation of the atmosphere of that time and place. In doing this, he takes full account of both natural and cultural conditioning factors, including power relations among the populations, as well as the way in which customs and beliefs shape mentalities and personal and collective agency. If we add to this the plausibility of the psychological characterisation of its characters, especially the protagonist from adolescence to maturity, and the richness and flexibility of its style, it is perhaps no exaggeration to consider Culan da Crestaulta a world masterpiece of its kind of fiction. In any case, it is an undisputed and repeatedly reprinted classic of Romansh fiction.

Culan da Crestaulta interestingly includes a couple of narrative samples from the invented mythology of the peoples evoked in the novel, so that these examples of mythopoiesis makes the novel all the more appealing as speculative fiction. A later writer, Ursicin G. G. Derungs, did the same in perhaps his most famous story, “Il cavalut verd” (The Little Green Horse), which gives its title to the collection in which it appeared, Il cavalut verd ed auter (The Green Little Horse and Other Things, 1988). That ‘little green horse’ appears one day in an Alpine village to the astonishment and consternation of the adults and the joy and delight of the children, to whom he tells of his origin in an earlier, peaceful, paradisiacal natural world in which everything was permeated by bright colours and music. Its appearance and disappearance are fantastic, but the questioning it implies of the primary reality is not a source of horror, but of wonder. It is also a cause for sadness arising from the conviction that something so beautiful could not remain in our present world. The critique implicit therein is expressed in other speculative stories from the same collection, in which Derungs shows the rhetorical sophistication of his writing. For example, in “Il papa che saveva buca crer en Diu” (The Pope That Could Not Believe in God), a pseudo-historiographical narrative shows the hypocrisy of an official Catholic Church that accepts an atheist Pope, but not his decision to live in the world according to the Gospel. In the short imaginary historiographical text “Ils plats” (The Flat People), a mysterious disease flattening people and its consequences are described using a literary technique that can be considered science-fictional. Other stories by Derungs from the same book are also good examples of speculative fiction of the fantastic kind, such as “La sala de spetga” (The Waiting Room), where that venue is a Kafkaesque symbolic place suggesting an anguishing concept of human existence, and “Niessegner sper il lag dils siemis” (Our Lord by the Lake of Dreams), a masterly Borgesian tale of divine suspension of the flow of time. However, Derungs rarely eschews social criticism in his speculative fiction. This can easily be seen, for example, in a former tale entitled “Correspondenza cul purgatieri” (Letters from Purgatory, published in the 1982 volume Il saltar dils morts (The Dance of the Dead), a highly original vision of the different planes of that theological venue from a rather social perspective, from the hell of selfishness to the utopia that precedes the ineffable space of Heaven.

Other writers of Derungs’s generation adopted similar approaches to speculative fiction, conflating it with social criticism, although not as consistently as he did. Notable works in this vein are, for example, Theo Candinas’ “Descripziun d’in stabiliment” (Description of a Plant, 1974), a piece of fictional non-fiction adopting the highly original form of an architectural and topographical description of the exterior of an industrial slaughterhouse in order to criticise the Swiss party system, and Toni Berther’s “Ils ratuns vegnan” (Rats Are Coming, 1978), which is a kind of historiographical account of a small town’s efforts to attract tourism by organising rat-hunting parties and the catastrophic consequences of the proliferation of these intelligent animals. The black humour of the story and its narrative fluency make of Berther’s parable an effective anti-tourism dystopia.

After this flowering of the speculative and fantastic tale in Surselva, which coincided with the same phenomenon in Engadine, as we saw in the above-mentioned works by Bezzola and Grob-Ganzoni, the following years witnessed the hegemony of postmodernism also in this linguistic area. As a result, realism, albeit sometimes formally innovative as in Arno Camenisch’s case, virtually excluded speculative and fantastic fiction from current Romansh literature. With the exception of the short novel L’umbriva dil temps (The Shadow of Time, 2017) by Paula Casutt-Vinzenz, in which life in a Bronze Age village is recreated with pleasant verisimilitude and from a female perspective, Sursilvan speculative fiction took refuge mainly in young adult literature, especially in the form of high fantasies following global sets of conventions. So do the two novels written by young lady authors entitled Emalio (Emalio, 2015) by Flurina Albin and Stina Hendry and Oranja (Oranja, 2021) by Stella Sennhauser. While the latter reads as a sort of compensatory teenage fantasy, the former shows a surprising maturity in the description of the characters’ motives and actions, as well as a good command of narrative, within the limits of the simple writing style common to the genre of high fantasy in the 21st century.

Novels such as Emalio give hope that Romansh fantastic and speculative fiction could recover at some point from its current postmodern crisis and, after having adopted high fantasy, may undertake the task of filling in its main gap, the science fiction novel. Even without doing so, the Romansh language in general, and Sursilvan in particular, can still boast of having one of the richest literatures in Europe in relative terms to its small number of speakers, also with regard to fantastic and speculative fiction.


[1] Titles in italics are those of translated works in English that I am aware of. In this case, this short novel by Camenish was translated into English from Romansh, but from the German version written by the author himself. All the other translations mentioned in this essay were published in the following book: The Curly-Horned Cow: Anthology of Swiss-Romansh Literature, edited by Reto R. Bezzola, translated from the Ladin by Elizabeth Maxfield Miller and from the Surselvan by W. W. Kibler, London, Peter Owen, 1971.

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