Peter Bichsel - very short, deceptively simple stories about people who are stuck in daily routines, poisonous thought patterns, or stifling inactiveness which keeps them from doing what they really want to do (for example getting to know the milkman, as in the title story). Sometimes stories have to be read several times before little inconsistencies appear.

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Peter Bichsel, And Really Frau Blum Would Very Much Like to Meet the Milkman, Trans. by Michael Hamburger, Marion Boyars Publishers, 1968.


These are very short, deceptively simple stories about people who are stuck in daily routines, poisonous thought patterns, or stifling inactiveness which keeps them from doing what they really want to do (for example getting to know the milkman, as in the title story). Sometimes stories have to be read several times before little inconsistencies appear. For instance, there's a story about civil servants (Die Beamten) which is only 1 1/2 pages long. In it, the narrator describes the daily routine of these civil servants who leave for lunch at exactly the same time. They are presented as a uniform horde of people who are frightened whenever they don't sit at their desks. Towards the end of the story, some characteristics are named which only some of the civil servants possess, like fishing in their spare time, or an affinity for radish salad. But be careful: The first paragraph ends with: "they all wear hats" (sie tragen alle Hüte), but then the penultimate sentence reads: "...and there are also civil servants who don't wear hats" (..., und es gibt auch Beamte, die tragen keine Hüte). So which is it? Do they all wear hats? Or is that only our perception? Are we thinking of them as a bland collective of officials without personalities, so much so that we don't even notice when the narrator contradicts himself within a one-page story?
Again and again, Bichsel describes little scenarios of people, who don't communicate or at least don't communicate the right things. Thoughts and fears are pushed down, ignored. Daily life continues.
I also really liked the last story in the collection, which seems to me like a statement in favor of a positive outlook on life, and the advantage of focusing on positive aspects instead of petty complains. Of course, this could also be read as the total opposite. The idea that there is a romantic ideal of winter and snow which can be dreamed up but is refuted by reality. Does snow really turn remote villages lonely? Or do they just appear lonely? Does the snow isolate us and keep us from getting to our fellow human beings, just as failed communication can't bring us any closer to one another? Is there also an ideal of human connection which involves enjoying each other's company despite the obstacles and that's where the title "Explanation" comes from? Or is the explanation one for our current dilemma, back to the first reading, of constantly viewing matters from a negative point of view? But then again, the ideal seems surprisingly menacing. Why would we need snowmen as guards (Wächter)? Why is the idea of burying oneself in snow consoling, as well as warming? Why are there no other people, even in the "positive" subjunctive Man hätte sich freuen können ? Even in this scenario, people build houses, and guards, and bury themselves in the snow. So would it really make a difference if one was excited about the snow? It seems almost that this attitude would be just as isolating, as accepting that snow can derail trains and turn villages into lonely places. All the while, of course, realizing that snow itself is completely innocuous, only gaining connotations through human association. All of these questions from such a short, little text - that's the strength of Peter Bichsel, an author who was very popular in the 1960s, but isn't read much anymore today, unfortunately. - Melanie Goetz       

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