Friday, June 26, 2015

One Hundred Days by Lukas Barfuss

Lukas Barfüss, One Hundred Days (Granta Books, 2013)

I’m sure you’ll agree, translators are the nicest people in the world, (teachers excepted of course). Just think about it, some poor, asocial sucker, with the loneliest job in the world, has spent the past year or so locked up in a room writing a book.  Along comes the translator and, in return for a pittance, sits for the best part of half a year or so locked up in a room and miraculously turns the foreign words into something you can understand, thereby allowing you to break out of the narrow-minded parochialism that comes with being an English speaker and actually hear what other people (the majority) are saying in other languages. So three cheers for Tess Lewis (whoever she is), for translating the novel One Hundred Days by the young Swiss author Lukas Barfüss.

In this contemporary version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, steamy sex and genocidal murder make for a potent mix, told in deceptively simple, taut prose. The protagonist is a naïve chap by the name of David Hohl. He has always been moved to fight against injustice. Had he gone to Zurich International School he would have won the ZIS Cares Award. So he gets a job in economic development and his first post is in the sleepy African backwater of Rwanda. But, the surface is deceptive and Rwanda is about to explode into the 1994 well planned genocide of Tutsis. In the one hundred days of the title the Hutus slaughter nearly 800,000 people. Because he is obsessed with a beautiful, but racist Hutu woman, David Hohl refuses to be evacuated, and instead stays and witnesses the slaughter. No wonder his name is Hohl (which means hollow).

Barfüss reveals the hypocrisy that lies at the root of Swiss development work. His book is a meditation on how a strong sense of virtue can gently lead to passive participation in the most horrifying cruelty. Most of all, his book works as a metaphoric warning against being sucked into any organisation that comes to see efficiency as an end in itself - surely a lesson for us all. Peaceful, well organised Rwanda was sometimes called the Switzerland of Africa. Barfüss sees that you can reverse this, seeing Switzerland as the Rwanda of Europe. He reminds us that Switzerland is a well-oiled machine that runs smoothly, where order, routine, discipline and respect for institutions holds sway, but adds: “These characteristics are not impediments to mass murder, but necessary conditions. Evil loves nothing more than the proper implementation of a plan, and in that domain, you have to admit, we are world champions.”

This book has garnered Barfüss a number of literary prizes, as well as nominations for the biggest book prizes in Germany and Switzerland. He is, of course, almost unheard of in the insular, provincial English speaking world.


  1. The trouble with translations is that the reader is never certain if he/she is picking up the writer's exact language preferences or the translator's. It probably doesn't matter in the long run since, if we could read the book in the original language, we would.

    But I have read translations of Hebrew and occasionally thought that I might have given a slightly different feel to a sentence. This was particularly true when the words were value-loaded eg a feminist's speech.

    1. Thanks for your comment Hels. The issue of translations is always going to be dfficult. Mind you, most people have read the Bible only in translation - indeed translations of the Bible have shaped entire societies. Many claim that the St. James Edition is the most influential book ever published in English! And I would argue that a person's mind would be far poorer if they refused to read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or Chekhov or Turgenev simply because their Russian isn't up to scratch.