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Nina Debrunner and Christa Baumberger

Mariella Mehr’s Literary Oeuvre (Prose and Drama)

Ayse Yavas | Mariella Mehr | photograph | Switzerland | lit_00636 Rights held by: Ayse Yavas | Licensed by: Limmat Verlag | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Limmat Verlag (Zurich/Switzerland)

Mariella Mehr’s literary oeuvre stands out in Swiss literature for her choice of subject matter and the radical way she treats it. As a member of the Yenish people and a victim of the programme ‘Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse’ [Charity for the Children of the Country Road] run by the Swiss organisation Pro Juventute, her writing has an existential urgency not frequently found in Swiss literature. The subject matter to which she gives literary form remains socially and politically controversial and insufficiently addressed to this day. Born in Zurich in 1947, Mariella Mehr gained international prominence in the 1980s for her dedicated involvement in exposing and investigating ‘Kinder der Landstrasse’ – a state-sponsored ‘charity’ programme that systematically and forcibly took away Roma and Yenish children from their parents and had them adopted by families of the Swiss majority population.

Mehr’s journalistic and literary activities are fundamentally informed by her attempts to come to terms with her Yenish origins and her own woeful history. In reportage such as Alptraum der Embryos [The Embryos’ Nightmare] (1975) and, at greater length, in her first, unmistakeably autobiographical novel Steinzeit [Stone Age] (1981), she describes her harrowing childhood and youth in a foster family and in various children’s homes. These early texts already attest to Mehr’s search for a fitting language to describe her experiences of violence.

Mehr dwelt on the Pro Juventute programme in numerous journalistic articles. In addition, she adapted the files that had been compiled about her into a drama: Akte M. Xenos ill. 1947 – C. Xenos ill. 1966: Ein Theaterstück, [File M. Xenos ill. 1947 – C. Xenos ill. 1966: A Play]. First staged in Bern in 1986, it provoked strong reactions and was published in book form in the documentary Kinder der Landstrasse. Ein Hilfswerk, ein Theater und die Folgen [Children of the Country Road: A Charity, a Theatre and the Consequences] (1987). Mehr continued addressing the issue of Travellers in Switzerland in numerous articles, columns and letters to the editors until well into the 1990s.

In Mariella Mehr’s literary texts, by contrast, the Yenish occupy only a marginal place. Heimat im Wort [Homeland in Words], for instance, is an affectionate portrait of her uncle, a basket weaver who, shortly before his death, returns to the forest to die in peace. Two shorter prose texts are devoted to her sorrowful family history: von der unlust der sinnlichkeit am tontaubenschiessen oder von der wollust des habichts am töten des huhnes [of the aversion to sensuality in clay pigeon shooting or of the pleasure taken by the hawk in killing the chicken] (1987) and Phralalen, Pejalen Mama. Quante Mamera. Liebe Mutter (1996).

Mariella Mehr | Heimat im Wort | Articles | lit_00012 Rights held by: Mariella Mehr | Licensed by: Limmat Verlag | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Limmat Verlag – Publishing House (Zurich/Switzerland)

From the very beginning, Mehr positioned herself as a fearless writer, time and again assuming a stance in explosive socio-political debates. During the 1980s, she championed feminist concerns and became a polemical critic of the patriarchal Swiss literary scene. In the 1990s, she spoke out on Switzerland’s cultural, fiscal and refugee policy. Social conflicts have preoccupied her as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. For example, the escalation of the Zurich youth riots of 1980 was the focus not only of reportages such as Ich zünd mich an [I’ll set myself on fire] (1986), but also of her play Silvia Z. Ein Requiem [Silvia Z. A Requiem] (1986).

All her dramatic works revolve around the fates of individuals. In her third and last play Anni B. oder Die fünf Gesänge der Not [Anni B. or The Five Songs of Misery] (1989), Mehr focuses on a woman who fought in Spain as a member of the International Brigades and who, upon returning to Switzerland, was committed to a mental institution. Spain is also the setting in Mehr’s report ‘Das Licht der Frau’ [Woman’s Light] (1984) in which she examines the phenomenon of female violence using the example of female bullfighters.

Mariella Mehr’s principal themes are already apparent in her portraits, obituaries, features and book reviews: the game of violence and counter-violence, power and powerlessness, rebellion and submission. The individual’s relationship to society is generally conflict-ridden and characterised by violence. She brings outsiders, minorities and subcultural groups into focus and pays particular attention to correctional practices in mental and penal institutions. Her weighty psychiatric novel Zeus oder der Zwillingston [Zeus or the Twin Tone] (1994) gives a detailed and drastic account of practices in a closed psychiatric ward and connects them in a convincing manner with motifs from Greek mythology.

Her main works are the novels forming the Trilogie der Gewalt [Trilogy of Violence]: Daskind (Thechild) (1995), Brandzauber [Fire Magic] (1998) (1998) and Angeklagt [Accused] (2002). These novels focus not only on female victims, but also on female perpetrators. The first is about a child in a foster family who reacts to her hostile environment by refusing to speak; the second is about two adults – a Jewess and a Romni – whose past is catching up with them; the third tells the story of an adolescent arsonist taking revenge for a past injustice. There is never any escape from the spiral of violence. Zellentext 1 [Cell Text 1], which can be read here, is a haunting description of the despair and powerlessness of the imprisoned female protagonist. It is Mariella Mehr’s first monologue of this kind, and it reads like a study for her rousing novel in which a young offender in a prison cell faces up to her crime.

Mariella Mehr | Brandzauber | Articles | lit_00015 Rights held by: Mariella Mehr | Licensed by: Limmat Verlag | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Limmat Verlag (Zurich/Switzerland)
Mariella Mehr | Zellentext I | Articles | lit_00013 Rights held by: Mariella Mehr | Licensed by: Limmat Verlag | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Limmat Verlag (Zurich/Switzerland)

Marielle Mehr’s works are an evocative documentation of political and social history as well as the history of medicine, particularly psychiatry. But first and foremost they are unique literary creations in their own right. Irrespective of any biographical aspects or specific historical and social circumstances, Mehr’s literary articulation of violence and speechlessness is fascinating. With great intensity, she succeeds in describing how people who experience language as wrong, untrue or unjust come to find their own mode of expression and how an injured self that has never felt whole learns to talk about itself. In her prose as well as in her poetry, Mehr develops a distinctive and highly individual language, capturing existential experiences such as strangeness and belonging, injury and pain.

With its relentlessness and its radical themes and language, Mehr’s oeuvre occupies a unique position in contemporary Swiss literature and is quite challenging to her readers. This may well be a reason why the recent reception of Mehr’s oeuvre has been extremely ambivalent. On the one hand, Mehr has been regularly honoured with awards: in 1998, the University of Basel awarded her an honorary doctorate for her literary accomplishments and undaunted political commitment. After various other awards, she received the highly endowed ProLitteris Prize for her complete works in 2012, the ‘Weiterschreiben’ Prize of the City of Bern in 2014 and the Bündner Literaturpreis for her lifetime achievements in early 2016. Her novels and poems have been translated into several languages and have received much attention, especially in Italy. In German-speaking countries, on the other hand, her prose work was almost entirely out of print for a long time. And her volumes of poetry, published by Drava Verlag, some of them in bilingual editions in German and Romani (translations by Rajko Djurić and Mišo Nikolić), are not readily available in bookstores. Despite the difficulty of obtaining the source material, several studies have been done on her oeuvre, among them two doctoral dissertations (Iacovino 2004; Sälzer 2010) as well as a number of academic papers on individual aspects of her work. In 2017, the Zurich-based Limmat Verlag reissued her Trilogy of Violence and also published a volume of texts and essays on Mariella Mehr edited by Christa Baumberger and Nina Debrunner: Widerworte. Geschichten, Gedichte, Reden, Reportagen [Back Talk: Stories, Poems, Speeches, Reportage]. In this volume, numerous unpublished texts from the Mariella Mehr Collection in the Swiss Literary Archives have become accessible for the first time.

Mariella Mehr, Christa Baumberger, Nina Debrunner | Widerworte: Geschichten, Gedichte, Reden, Reportagen | Books | Zurich | 2017, Nov. 1, 2017 | lit_00011 Licensed by: Limmat Verlag | Licensed under: Rights of Use | Provided by: Limmat Verlag – Publishing House (Zurich/Switzerland)