Now, this may be because I have literally been swimming in Ramuz since last summer, but Maile Chapman’s Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto reminded me of my favorite Swiss literary fellow.
The similarity comes from the narrative perspective. I’ve mentioned before how Ramuz’s use of the third person pronoun on (one, you – universal, we) can drive a translator to distraction. On isn’t a terribly complicated concept, grammatically speaking, but in the Ramuzian universe it has a special job.
In a Ramuz text, the on is often used to represent the voice of the village, which is just a slightly more intimate form of the narrator. And the narrative shifts back and forth between a straight omniscient and this subtle all-village voice. So it has this collective consciousness aspect to it, adding an invisible “watcher/describer” to whatever story is being told. But it’s very subtle, since it is only rarely a direct “we”. I love this about his work, since he’s so often getting at the psychology of small village life.
Now, Chapman’s novel, which is set at a hospital in rural Finland, uses the first person plural. But it uses this perspective with great subtlety, which is, in my opinion, the only way to really get away with the first person plural unless you want to give your book a gimmicky texture. But what happens is that the narrator is both a member of the cast as well as a watcher of the story. Very much like Ramuz.
I realize I haven’t given any details about what this novel is about yet, and I’ll get there soon, I promise. What I do want to say is that Chapman’s clever use of the first person plural creates a kind of chorus, which chimes in every once in a while throughout the novel. It’s a bit spooky. It is also how she manages to create this fantastic echo of Euripedes’ play The Bacchae, without overtly mimicking that story. One event in Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto does directly reference The Bacchae, but the careful construction of this chorus using the first person plural emphasizes the connection much more subtly, much more powerfully.