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by Friedrich Glauser
Bitter Lemon Press, January 2005
310 pages
ISBN: 1904738060

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

IN MATTO'S REALM is a dark little gem of a book set in between the wars in Switzerland and written by an author who spent much of his life either in lunatic asylums, psychiatric wards or prison.

And what shines through is that its author, Friedrich Glauser, a drug addict who died in 1938, two years after the book was published, is basing the setting on what he knew all too well.

And as he says in the feisty 'necessary forward' (apparently a small-town Swiss soccer club once objected to one of his books because a fullback appeared in it): "A story has to take place somewhere. Mine takes place in the Canton of Bern, in a lunatic asylum. So what? Presumably we're still allowed to tell stories?"

That tone is typical of the book, and translator Mike Mitchell appears to be having a ball. Once or twice the translation teeters on the edge of sounding too modern, but that's no doubt the challenge of translating a writer with such an idiosyncratic voice. Generally you feel he's done Glauser proud with a rendition that leaps off the page and accosts you as you saunter past.

OK, on to the story . . . Sergeant Studer is rousted from bed at 5am to go over to a lunatic asylum from where a child murderer has escaped. And before long Studer discovers the body of the asylum's director in the boiler room.

It's not a complicated plot, but what makes the book worth every page are the little cameos. The lugubrious Studer has been demoted from chief inspector to sergeant and, although not far off retirement, is working his way back up again. "Things could be tough if you had too strong a sense of justice," he observes in regard to his disgrace.

As Studer moves through the asylum interviewing staff and patients, all manner of people pop up to waylay him. I particularly liked the night-watchman with his "moustache undulating like water-weed on the bottom of the stream" and the chap with hearing problems -- probably, observes Studer in his typical deadpan, because of all the hair growing out of his ears.

Matto's realm is where the spirit of insanity reigns, and there's absolutely no doubt that it's a place Glauser knew well. This classic allows the reader a peep into his remarkable and at times frightening world.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, September 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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