Silver white winters that melt into springs: the recent writings of Verena Stefan

Florian Duijsens

In "Doe a Deer", translated by Lise Weil and collected in Best European Fiction 2011 (Dalkey, 2010), the Swiss-German author Verena Stefan does not tell a traditional story: there are no other characters aside from a narrator that seems indistinguishable from the author. There is no dialogue, no plot. Instead we read about languages, the Babylonian confusions inherent to living in a language other than the one you first learnt; about the patois and script of nature, the landscape traces animals and seasons leave behind; and about the pervasive, invasive discourse of the news.

Framed by a walk in snow-locked Quebec, the story starts and ends with a death. The first is that of the titular deer, the last of an anonymous woman in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. The narrator comes across the first body by accident, walking through the woods, later tracing the decomposition of its corpse as winter solidifies, then melts. She takes these walks to escape the world of words, the scripted horrors of the news, the plotting of revenge directly after 9/11. The narrator is new to Canada, still settling in. Hearing and reading the news in either French or English instead of her native German introduces a kind of filter—Stefan describes it as similar to the mesh screens that keep flies outdoors in summer. The more pernicious phrases are thus kept out for a while, barred until further research reveals just what 'collateral damage' or 'boucliers vivants' really mean, what their human equivalent is. Stefan here pinpoints the confusions that marked the months after that September —the insecurities about what was just, what true— and how they were exacerbated by linguistic contortions.

In winter the great cold helps to cleanse tortuous news of its dirt. Bad news should only be broadcast in snow and ice when the earth is frozen, and not in summer, when it's permeated by moist heat, when with every step it reminds us that it breathes and lives.
The winter walks calm her, not just due to the absence of print or words in the starkly white landscape, but also in the Tree of Life sense of pinpointing humanity's humble (and precious) position in the face of history, the Big Bang, and mass extinctions.

Yet here too, language intrudes, even in its apparent absence. The marks in the snow around the deer's carrion remains are in a script she has trouble deciphering. She feels unable to put them into words, just as the traces of human violence, specifically violence against women (as in the case of Juarez' feminicidios), leave her speechless. Still she tries, quoting the poet Rose Ausländer: "The mirrorcarp / in pepper aspic / was silent in five languages". The poem these lines are taken from is a tribute to Czernowitz, a much-contested Bukovinan town on the edge of the Ukraine, bordering Romania and Moldova. Ausländer, like Stefan, has learnt that the animal world has nothing to say about human pain, about wars and occupations; the landscape does not respond to any questions, is not capable of a direct response.


As a German-speaker in the Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec, Stefan's narrator is faced with overlapping linguistic realities, as certain animals or elements have only entered her world after moving to Canada. Hence, a 'tourtelle triste'–or mourning dove–, will to her always be that, not a 'Traubertaube', the name given to the same species of bird in German. As you learn the names of things around you, that outside world becomes more solid, easier to control, handle, inhabit. Foreign words teach you their reality; collecting proper names and their pedigree fleshes out cultural and political landscapes, and local history can start to come alive.

When moving to another linguistic realm, I believe you have two options: either to immerse yourself completely, or to sit still and listen. It's not simply a question of sinking or swimming, but of diving into the deep end or lurking in the changing rooms, idling at your locker, toweling off the same limbs, rolling the same socks on and off. When observing without participating, one can get stuck in admiration, not seeing the unspoken reasons why. Similarly, when participating, your sense of distance can become warped, your own thoughts and movements superseded, clipped in the melee, cut off from their origins.

In reality the strategy is usually a combination of the two. Readjusting your swimsuit, you linger on the pool steps, gripping the railing. The shock of water, the pinch of chlorine. Trying, failing, flailing in the water, matching the other swimmers' kicks and scoops, but not being able to match their breathing. Your rhythm flicks out of sync, you sink. You lunge for the tiled edge, pull up, inhale.

Whichever choice you make, there'll be idioms that stay obscure, phrasings that ring false ringing from your own mouth. The other language is not your own, and even your own language has its limits. Learning a new language thus feels like a repartitioning of the brain's hard drive, with certain files painlessly synced, while others remain associated with one language, one life only; the mind can become forked, with parts of one's personality unable to be translated into the new realm.

Die Einheimischen haben alle Worte in einer ihrer Sprachen zur Verfügung, manchmal sogar in zweien. Sie sind nicht immer aufgelegt zu warten, bis eine Hinzugekommene Worte gesucht, gefunden, zusammengeklaubt hat. Sie sind nicht geneigt, ihre Anekdoten, Episoden und Geschichten zu unterbrechen für eine, die andere Akzente, andere Betonungen setzt, durch die sich das heimelige Gefühl einer Gruppe verändert, weil sie im Laufe eines Abends zusehends hinterherhinkt, ihr Gesicht verrutscht, abflacht. Das arglose Dahinplätschern, die Lust am Reden um des Redens willen verwandelt sich in Lärm. Deine Ohren schmerzen, als kratzte jemand mit einem Metallöffel in einem Metalltopf herum.
Locals have all the words in one of their languages at their disposal, sometimes even those of two languages. They are not always in the mood to wait until a new arrival has searched for, found, and picked out words. They are not inclined to interrupt their anecdotes, episodes and stories for one that uses different accents, different intonations, through which the cozy feeling of a group changes, because she, in the course of an evening, noticeably lags behind, her face slipping, flattening. The unsuspecting rippling, the pleasure of speaking for the sake of speaking turns to noise. Your ears hurt, as if someone's scratching around in a metal pot with a metal spoon. (Fremdschläfer, 2007, translations my inexpert own)

If the subjects of those translated lines were sometimes unclear that's because Stefan plays with subjectivity throughout, not only relating her own experience, but also the reader's, and those of the locals she encounters in Canada. We are all as much linguistic insiders as we are outsiders, all of us grasping at the world in only one language (or at least a limited number of them). 


Learning to speak is a fragmentary process, one that word by word attempts to line up one's mind with our family, with our community, the world outside. This process is mediated through the body, with lips pouted and tongues flattened, air modulated into speech.

Das Namenlernen enthält eine Unsicherheit, etwas Unmündiges, etwas ist nicht richtig im Mund. Learning names entails an uncertainty, something immature [Unmündiges literally translates as unmouthed, in the sense of unable to speak, mute], something is not right in the mouth.
The body thus takes on an odd role in the acquisition of language, as much is decided by the gut, phrases and idioms ingested then regurgitated over and over again rather than just learnt and saved for later like so many passwords. The linguistic newcomer is reduced to the frustrated state of a child, asking innumerable questions of what and how until at some point something sticks.

Man verstummt, sind erneut in den Zustand des Kleinkinds zurück, das die Dinge noch nicht beim Namen nennen kann und brabbelnd auf Gegenstände deutet. Von Zeit zur Zeit schlägt man halbherzig mit den Armen um sich, weil man sehnlichst wünscht, daß die Fütterungen und die Erklärungen aufhörten und nie mehr nötig wären, was von den Einheimischen wiederum als ein dummes Deuten auf Dinge gedeutet wird und sie zu neuen Erklärungen veranlaßt.
You fall silent, return to the state of an infant that cannot call things by their names and mutters while pointing at objects. From time to time you half-heartedly flap your arms around, because you ardently wish that the feeding and the explaining would stop and no longer be necessary, which is in turn interpreted by the locals as dumb pointing at things, leading them to new explanations.

It can be alluring, though, to hover longer in this childlike state of half ignorance, as there are already plenty of words screaming and whispering for our attentions without us needing to also understand those in another language. To want to get out of this state and engage with this new realm, one needs to need to—either for professional (survival) reasons or for romantic ones, as Stefan did, to know the mind as well as the body of the foreign loved one.

In her latest book Fremdschläfer (Ammann, 2007), Stefan addresses this more explicitly as she describes her integration process after leaving Berlin to move in with her Canadian partner in 1998. She juxtaposes this with her father's painful acceptance as a German in the Swiss city of Bern and the experience of asylum seekers in contemporary Switzerland. Contrasting the at-root xenophobic Swiss system with the kind treatment she receives at Canadian hands, the book tries to square being an immigrant with the knowledge that most other immigrants' experiences are vastly different.

The title, Fremdschläfer, can be literally translated as 'foreign/strange sleepers', but here is better understood as something more complex:

Madame, Monsieur, für Einwandernde und Auswandernde hat der Begriff Fremdschläfer unterschiedliche Bedeutungen. Damit kann sowohl in der Fremde schlafen gemeint sein, als auch mit einer Fremden schlafen, wobei es sich für eine Einwandernde in einem fremden Land so verhält, daß die Einheimische, die sie in ihr Bett einlädt, für sie ebenfalls eine Fremde ist, das heißt, daß zwei Fremde miteinander schlafen. Am Anfang sind alle Einheimischen Fremde.

Madame, Monsieur, the term 'foreign sleeper' has different meanings for immigrants and emigrants. It can mean both sleeping abroad and sleeping with a stranger, and in the case of the immigrant in a strange country this means that the local she invites into her bed is also a stranger to her, that is, that makes two strangers sleeping with each other. In the beginning all locals are strangers.
While in the book Stefan mainly uses the term in the sense of this romantic analogy (which makes us all Fremdschläfer), an epigraph reveals its heritage as an official Swiss term for asylum seekers that sleep in not officially sanctioned homes, that live outside the law. Like the story in Best European Fiction 2011 (an outtake from Fremdschläfer) then, this book tries to square the author's personal, internal experience with the harsh realities outside.

(The book actually tackles three different shocks to the author's system: the shock of finding love, the shock of immigration, and the shock of being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer—another illegal alien, this time somehow lodged in Stefan's own body; she wondrously describes it as a dark star on her scan.)

On the intimate level, linguistic inequality is addressed with great sensitivity. The first section of the book takes place in the narrator's head as she lies in bed, ostensibly asleep, seeing her lover sit down on a chair next to her through the slit of light between her cheeks and her eye mask. No words are spoken. Her lover is silent in French or English, Stefan in German, French, and English. Still, her body can bridge the gap, break the silence, all it takes is a reading of the limbs, an anticipation of speech, the intimate knowledge of the other. A combination of limbic and linguistic systems, communication through any means necessary, words or no.