Friday, September 5, 2014

Book 156, Switzerland: "Heidi" by Johanna Spyri

I've spent a month in Switzerland before, so I've read some of its literature - Friedrich Durenmatt's The Visit and The Physicists and Max Frisch's Homo Faber, for instance. Yet I hadn't, until now, read the most clichéd work of Swiss literature in existence:

Ah, Heidi. I got an illustrated Kindle version off Project Gutenberg. No idea if it was the best translation, but a lot of modern translations seem to be adaptations for younger readers.

And honestly, I can see why they'd target younger readers. The tale is soppy as all hell - Heidi is just five when she enters the scene, and she's all sweetness and light and innocent virtue, never once selfish or rebellious the way actual children are.

She's an orphan: her dad died in a logging accident and her mum died of grief as a result, and her cousin Deta is dumping her on their cranky old grandfather 'cos she's got herself a decent-paying job as a maid in Frankfurt. Never mind that her grandfather, the Alm-Uncle, is famously cranky and solitary and lives all alone in the cold mountains with only his two goats, and everyone in the village thinks she's committing reckless child neglect by placing her in his hands.

But ah, little Heidi is a miracle-worker! She charms the Alm-Uncle into loving her, and is utterly content with only having goat milk and cheese and bread for food and sleeping on a bale of hay, and spends all her days hanging out with Peter, the 11 year-old goatherd, playing with the goats and marvelling at the beauty of the sunrise and sunset and the flowers and the grass and the pines and the everything that you'd think a little Swiss village girl would just see as part of the landscape.

But then we've got the big conflict: Deta returns and asks her to come to Frankfurt to become a friend to Clara, an 8 year-old invalid daughter of the rich Mr Sesseman. The story thus turns into a narrative contrasting the oppressiveness of the German cityscape with the glory of the Swiss countryside.

You see, Heidi creates a huge ruckus in the household with her innocent country ways - she offers to take in an entire litter of kittens from a guy who guards a clock tower, at one point, and freaks out her governess with the surfeit of meowing kittens overflowing from her pockets. But she wins over Clara and Sebastian the butler and rich Mr Sesseman, because she's so pure of heart.

But Frankfurt's all wrong for her, and she gets skinny and sickly and starts sleepwalking, so Mr Sesseman sends her back to the Alps, and eventually sends Clara as well for a holiday. And Clara's so invigorated by the fresh mountain air and the goats' milk and the flowers that she actually starts walking again. Seriously, now.

So yes, it's a sappy story. But it was a pleasure to read - even knowing the ending, I was amused at the exact manner in which the miracle was executed, and how gradually, and how almost believably it came about. And it's fun to enjoy things ironically. Nonetheless, I've a few questions that bug me:

1) Isn't this all a little exploitative? I mean, we're romanticising the lives of the poor here. And their relationship with the rich is one of utter harmony - the Sessemans fall over their feet in their eagerness to bestow gifts unto Heidi's community, and are thanked for it. It's not a problem that some of our characters go barefoot and some ride around on silk cushions, apparently...

2) The levels of Christianity are too damn high. The only good things Heidi gets out of her stay in Frankfurt are the ability to read, and a new understanding of prayer and the ways of God, with which she's able to convince her bitter old grandfather to start going to church again. Really, the preaching is laid on pretty damn thick - not sure how much they preserve this in today's versions.

3) Is Peter an asshole? I wanted to declare him one as I read the story and watched him get rabidly jealous of anyone who became friends with Heidi, because he wanted to be her bestest and only friend aside from the goats - he has a habit of shaking his little fists at the sky, and even pushes Clara's wheelchair down the mountain at the end (without her in it, mind). So he is an incredible brat compared to our heroine. But then he's human - he's the one who actually acts the way a poor kid should act in the presence of the 19th century über-rich, which is to get mad and get smashing.

And a couple of factoids. First, the sequels to this book - Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children - weren't written by Johanna Spyri but by her translator. And second, Heidi isn't even her real name. It's Adelheid, which is an actual Christian name, whereof Heidi is a corruption, confusing the proper folks in Frankfurt no end.

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Representative quote: 
"Grandmama told me that God would make everything much better than I could ever dream. I shall always pray from now on, the way grandmama taught me. When God does not give me something I pray for, I shall always remember how everything worked out for the best this time. W'll pray every day, grandfather, won't we, for otherwise God might forget us."

"And if somebody should forget to do it?" murmured the old man.

"Oh, he'll get on badly, for God will forget him , too. If he is unhappy and wretched, people don't pity him, for they will say: 'he went away from God, and now the Lord, who alone can help him, has no pity on him.'"

Next book: Johann Kraftner's Princely treasures from the House of Liechtenstein, from Liechtenstein.

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