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Book review: 'The Green Silk Shawl describes a poorer and tougher Switzerland'

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Book review: 'The Green Silk Shawl describes a poorer and tougher Switzerland'
The Grand Hotel in St Moritz in the 1930s.
06:37 CEST+02:00
A new English translation of the Swiss oral history work 'The Green Silk Shawl' by Marcella Maier provides a fascinating insight into the lives of four generations of women in the Switzerland's Engadin region.
The book covers the period from the beginning of the 19th century right up to the 1970s and focuses on the lives of four women: Alma, Lisbetta, Maria and Nina.
 
Part family drama, and part social history, it shows a Switzerland that is, in many ways, worlds apart from the wealthy, comfortable society of today. It also shows a country in transition and has much to say about the development of women's rights in the country.
 
The Local spoke recently to the book's translator, Iris Hunter, about the book, its remarkable author and a unique part of the world.
 
What is your personal connection to Switzerland and Graubünden? 
 
I am Swiss, I was born in Zurich and lived there until 1975, when I moved to Cambridge in the UK as a visiting student.
 
Holidays in [the southeastern Swiss canton] of Graubünden, as a child and later as a student, were always the best’: walking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
 
Naturally, I introduced my Australian husband to the Engadine before any other region in Switzerland, and when we had children, we spent most of our vacations in Celerina. Walks along the Via Engiadina, in the Val Bregaglia and the Swiss National Park have become part of my most important memories. The seven-hour hike from Casaccia to Soglio was, to put it mildly, a uniquely exhausting experience.
 
The Silvaplana lake in Switzerland's Engadine Valley. File photo: Depositphotos
 
Recovering with a refreshing drink outside the Hotel Palazzo Salis was pure bliss. Readers of The Green Silk Shawl will recognise the location as the place where Alma, Marcella Maier’s great-great-grandmother, worked as a loyal and much-loved servant for Signora Anna, the owner of the palazzo. 
 
How did you end up translating The Green Silk Shawl?
 
A Swiss friend and colleague recommended the book to me with the words ‘Pascale would also love it’. Indeed, I thought, when I had read the book: my daughter Pascale would be a great fan – both because of her connections with the region and because she has been a midwife in London for many years.
 
She would be amazed at the distances Marcella Maier’s grandmother Maria had to cover – on foot or, if she was lucky, by carriage – to visit women during childbirth. The problem was that my daughter Pascale’s German was good, but not so fluent that she would have enjoyed reading a whole book. I therefore asked Max Weiss of Montabella Verlag St Moritz, who had the copyright and had published the original book, for permission to translate the work. He consulted the author and, happily, Marcella and her four daughters agreed. When the translation was done, I discovered a very good self-publishing firm in Cambridge which produces books on a print-on-demand basis.
 
Can you tell us something about Marcella Maier?
 
Sadly, I never met Marcella Maier. She died last July, aged 97, a few days after enjoying a Sunday walk with her family; she simply did not wake up. Most of what I know about her I gathered from the many articles and obituaries published about her and, most importantly, from personal contact with Max Weiss and her family. 
 
Marcella was known to everyone as modest and caring, as well as determined and effective in the pursuit of her goals. I particularly like that everyone seems to agree that she had a wicked sense of humour. 
 
 
The church of San Gian in the village of Celerina. File photo: Depositphotos
 
Marcella was born in St Moritz in 1920. After school, she spent a year as an au pair in Geneva, but to her great disappointment her plans to go to London fell through, because of the start of World War II. Instead of improving her English, she opted for learning Italian in Sondrio, which was not far from home. 
 
When the borders to Italy were closed, she joined the voluntary military service for women. Before the end of the war she got a job as secretary to the director of tourism in St Moritz, which meant that she was working in the organising team for the Winter Olympics in 1948, a role which suited her very well, not least because twenty years earlier, as an eight-year old, she had been a keen spectator of the previous St Moritz Olympics! 
 
Skiing and hiking were passions she shared with Duri, the man she married in 1947. They had five daughters, one of whom died when she was only a few hours old – one of the great personal tragedies in Marcella’s life. She wrote a very touching Romansh [as Switzerland's 'fourth language' is known] poem to her ‘Poppea’.
 
Being a mother and housewife was, however, not enough for Marcella: she helped her husband in the office of his carpentry firm, and at the same time started out as a journalist for radio and various local and regional papers, working in both German and Romansh. She loved her career as a journalist, as it enabled her to work for the many causes she cared about, such as women’s rights and environmental, planning and social issues. 
 
 
When Marcella Maier became the first woman member of the Gemeinderat (town council) of St Moritz and later the first woman from the Engadin elected to the Grosse Rat, i.e. the Council of the Canton Graubünden, she fought for these same causes. 
 
From a very young age, when she was only a school child, Marcella was looking out for those who needed help. Throughout her life, she was very much involved in charitable work, for example as a founding member of ‘Movimento’, a charity providing protected workplaces and sheltered accommodation for the disabled, and she was also President of the Mili Weber Foundation, a cultural charity which was particularly close to her heart.
 
It seems incredible that Marcella Maier found time to write books, considering all her other commitments.
 
After she had collected her ancestors’ reminiscences for her family and descendants, Max Weiss encouraged her to publish these memories for the benefit of a wider readership – this was the origin of Das grüne Seidentuch, as The Green Silk Shawl is known in the original German.
 
Part of the cover of the original German version of The Green Silk Shawl.
 
Apart from that, Maier also contributed to works on the history of tourism and other subjects. She was made an honorary citizen of St Moritz and awarded the ‘Kulturpreis of the Gemeinde St Moritz’. 
 
I have no doubt, however, that her many achievements would not have been possible without the support her mother, grandmother and daughters gave her at various stages in her life. The tightly knit family structure meant that every member of the family had a role and felt useful as part of the ‘team’, even in old age, up to their deaths. Marcella also cared with great devotion for her husband over many years when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. This was a particularly hard time for her –she wrote poignantly about losing a loved one to this cruel illness: ‘You left without saying goodbye’.  
 
Marcella herself was active to the very end of her life, even though she found her failing eyesight difficult to bear. 
 
What aspects of the memoir do you personally find most interesting?
 
I am fascinated by the author’s style, the way she weaves the fate of the green silk shawl into her straightforward, linear narrative. The biographies of her female ancestors and her own autobiography are cleverly combined with social history, regional traditions, the beginning of a health service, industrialisation and tourism.
 
The memories of living through two world wars, which raged beyond the borders but nevertheless had a deep impact on everyone’s life in the Engadin and the Val Bregaglia, are vividly described – with a light touch. No melodrama and no emotional outbursts. The motto was very much that one has to get on with whatever life throws at you. Marcella wins our understanding and sympathy but is able to do so without being depressing. 
 
Do you feel a personal affinity with any of the women in particular? If so, who and why?
 
Yes, I do, but it is hard to choose between them. Most are single mothers, all of them working, and all take the responsibilities for their children and their mothers extremely seriously, and they prioritise the education of their children above everything else. 
 
Alma is probably my favourite, a true heroine. Her life is obviously the most dissimilar to mine in many ways: she suffers grinding poverty and has worries that are beyond my personal experience. She has to be talked into travelling to her only daughter’s wedding, because she considers the journey over the Maloja Pass [which links the Engadine Valley with Val Bregaglia] by horse carriage far too extravagant. This is a car or bus journey of less than an hour nowadays. 
 
On a personal level, too, I admire Alma. As a widow with a small child, she gives refuge to an Italian Catholic priest, totally ignoring village gossip. She shows a great deal of what we call ‘Zivilcourage’ in German: ‘Who cares what the neighbours say?’ That her daughter Lisabetta throws this argument back at her, when she is told that working in a hotel in the Engadin would surely cause rumours, is a beautiful demonstration of the gentle humour displayed throughout the book. 
 
Against the odds, Alma is well-read and appreciates literature – in Italian and German. The same is true for the other women in the family, and in more than one instance the advantages of being fluent in several languages is mentioned. As a translator I empathise, of course.  
 
The Switzerland described is a far tougher (and poorer) place than that of today. 
 
The region described in The Green Silk Shawl was of course tougher and poorer than the Switzerland of today that most people know. Weather conditions, for example extended periods of freezing conditions during long winters which will have affected food supplies – this is unthinkable in our times. Illnesses which have by now fortunately been mostly eradicated still posed a very real threat then – I am thinking of tuberculosis and malaria, the latter was widespread in parts of Italy, and many Swiss were in danger of being infected. 
 
On the other hand, a headline in this morning’s Swiss news reads ‘Poverty in Switzerland increases by almost 10% in one year’, which does give me pause for thought. Worst affected groups are apparently single mothers and their children – I am thinking of Marcella and her ancestors. Life will be tough for these people in today’s Switzerland, I have no doubt. 
 
 
St Moritz in the Engandine Valley is now a resort for the super-rich. Photo: AFP
 
In the book, it is touching to read how the villagers support each other and that the wealthier citizens were, on the whole, kind to those who were not so lucky. The poorest in society had to work unbelievably hard to make ends meet and it must be true that there was very little time for leisure and not as much time for what we would consider ‘cultural pursuits’ in the time of Marcella Maier’s.
 
There is, however, plenty of evidence that Marcella’s own life was full of culture, and some of her family very much follow in their mother’s footsteps. As far as ‘learning’ goes, I need only mention how well known Friedrich Nietzsche was among the locals; not that I imagine him holding seminars in his house in Sils Maria, but the children did all go to school (there was even a discussion in the family on whether it was ‘worth it’ sending girls to a fee-paying school – the women won that argument, I am glad to say). Most children learnt a profession, even if they had to emigrate, and we read that midwives were given state-funded training. 
 
In terms of people showing their feelings: there is, indeed, relatively little display of emotion, definitely not as much I would expect from rural populations in southern European countries, for example. I do not know whether this was a simple coping mechanism or whether it stemmed from the desire to protect the children from the harshest realities – I am thinking of Padruot’s offspring not recognising their father when he returned from his self-imposed exile. They had not been told about the background of their father’s absence. 
 
Do you see any continuity between the country of then and now (for example, the focus on practical matters/the importance of nature etc./the outside world as a mysterious and often unwelcome presence)?
 
Yes, I do see that – as far as that is possible for someone who does not permanently live in Switzerland any more, but has close connections. I can certainly see the strong will among the population to be pragmatic, to find solutions, to be ready to compromise and, above all, to stand together as Swiss citizens – against the outside world, if necessary. The Swiss have felt the impact of global warming before most of the other European nations: shrinking glaciers, mud slides and forests dying because of air pollution are perhaps the most obvious recent signs.   
 
In political terms, the same strong feeling of the need for Swiss unity has continued over the centuries – Alma heard about the Napoleonic army marauding in the valley far below their hideouts way up in the mountains. During the two world wars, everyone realised what was happening and thanked their lucky stars that they were not directly involved in the fighting, though they were of course economically affected – the scene of the refugees crossing the mountains from Italy in the freezing cold is one that few readers will forget. Switzerland is a peaceful haven, much in contrast to the bloodshed that is taking place in the world outside, over the borders. 
 
Recently, there was a huge ‘women’s strike’ in Switzerland. Do you feel you can offer an opinion on how Marcella Maier would have viewed the strike?
 
From my knowledge of Marcella Maier’s political views I am convinced that she would have been in favour of the strike. You only have to read the passages about the laundry women who threatened to go on strike in order to get a pay increase. If that does not prove the point, nothing will, particularly when you consider that the washer women’s protest against their low wages took place long before Swiss women even had the right to vote. Equality of women was certainly one of Marcella’s causes. 
 
What has been the reaction to the English translation?
 
Generally very positive, I am glad to say, though modesty should forbid.... Having the translation enables foreign tourists in the region to enjoy the book, and I find that many readers say that memories of holidays in the region come flooding back when they read the English edition.
 
Swiss expats all over the world are perhaps my best market as they, like me, want to share a bit of their home country with friends and family in their adopted countries. The funniest reaction was from a Swiss German friend who wanted to read the translation to improve his English and told me that he found my English much easier than (English novelist and poet) D.H. Lawrence’s; I took this as a compliment. 
 
Why should people read The Green Silk Shawl?
 
One of the best reasons to read any book is surely that it is enjoyable – what is generally called ‘a good read’.
 
The book may not be a traditional ‘page turner’, but when I started reading it myself, I was so fascinated by the fate of these women that I simply wanted to know what would happen next. Readers tell me that they have felt like that, too. Feedback and reviews are proof: phrases like ‘I have devoured this book’, ‘I read The Green Silk Shawl straight through yesterday’, ‘I read this from cover to cover in a couple of days’ and ‘it was a pleasure to immerse myself in the world of these women’ abound. 
 
Quite apart from that, Marcella introduces us to a part of the world that is less well known. People who have visited the region as tourists and are familiar with the beautiful countryside, the lovely villages and the fantastic food will want to learn about its history in more depth. Memories of magical holidays will come flooding back. For those who have not (yet?) been there, the book provides a perfect introduction to a new world, with all the joys and sorrows life can bring. In any case, The Green Silk Shawl is one of the most evocative books I know.
 
Details on how to obtain a copy of The Green Silk Shawl, written by Marcella Maier and translated into English by Iris Hunter, are available here.

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