The following are reviews of the English edition:
(1) I read The Green Silk Shawl from cover to cover – the intricate weaving together of the stories of the four women (actually five, because the author weaves her own story into the end) is, like the shawl in the title that is handed down from mother to daughter, beautifully put together. The resilience and fortitude of these Swiss women across three centuries, who managed the ravages of Napoleon’s army, the fear and deprivation brought by the first and second world wars, while bringing up their children and securing their education is humbling. A touching reminder of the stories of the many many women who do not make front page news.
Professor Janet Seeley, University of East Anglia, Norwich
(2) A chain through the generations
Family history from a high alpine valley: a review of Marcella Maier’s The green silk shawl
Switzerland’s Engadine valley is a set of Segantini-like vistas, all lakes and mountains. At least, that’s how visitors see it. But, before it became a touristic idyll, how did people sustain themselves here, on this high altiplano, with its thin soils and hard winters? For those who want an answer, Iris Hunter has now ably translated Marcella Maier’s The green silk shawl into English.
Marcella Maier (1920-2018) was no visitor to the Engadine. Born and brought up in St Moritz, she traces her family history through four generations, that of her mother, Nina (1890-1975), through Maria (1867-1957), her maternal grandmother, and Lisabetta (1831-1913), and so back to Alma (1797-1877). In 2005, she published their story as Das grüne Seidentuch, which swiftly became a national best-seller.
In this account, women are the main characters because they had to be. For the first two generations, Maier’s forebears were widowed early. In the next one, Maria’s husband had to flee abroad after running up huge business debts.
When the story opens, we meet Alma wondering how she can support herself and her infant daughter through the next winter. Times are hard in the aftermath of the wars when Napoleon’s troops ravaged and looted their way through Switzerland. But her prospects improve when a kind shopkeeper recommends her to the lady of the “Palazzo” in Soglio. Moving to the mountain village, she gains a reputation as a reliable worker and a skilled nurse for the sick.
And so the story begins. When Maier’s own children are born, her mother feels “as if one ring was joining another to form a chain through the generations of these women, showing the way from the distant past to the future …”
But did her mother feel any such thing? We can’t be certain. By Maier’s own account, her sources are mainly the stories she heard from her grandmother, Maria – who, in turn, heard them from her own mother and grandmother. Then she had to bring these events to life by plausibly interpolating the actors’ thoughts and dialogues. Rebranded by the modern literary scene as “creative non-fiction”, such techniques probably go back to Thucydides or earlier.
Here, we feel, the creative element is held decently in control. Leitmotivs and other literary devices never obtrude. The silk shawl of the title is an heirloom handed down the generations, yet it surfaces on just a handful of occasions. Conversations must be recreated, of course, but sparingly so. And Iris Hunter has expertly rendered them into natural English while letting something of the original speech patterns ring through. This too bolsters the narrative’s authenticity.
To paint in her background, Maier also draws on documentary evidence of regional life. The results should surely get a nod from historians of the Annales school. Deftly woven into the narrative are folk memories of fleeing into the mountains from Napoleon’s marauding troops, early industrial action by washerwomen pushing for a wage rise, and the valley’s first brush with electric power (“this work of the devil”). Some of these episodes are illuminated with early photos.
There is many an insight into how society eased the lot of single mothers before social security was invented. The kind shopkeeper lets Alma buy groceries on credit, tiding her over the winter, while Lisabetta is appointed as her village’s furnera, a kind of communal baker. In return, the Swiss virtues are expected from all job applicants: “Reliability, accuracy and good manners, that is what we need here,” says Nina’s employer.
Steadfast and unshowy, these virtues may hint at why The green silk shawl is privately published. Apparently, the translation was passed over by several imprints who might be expected to take an interest in this type of book. Probably Maier’s account was insufficiently histrionic for them.
Readers will be more perceptive. They will find that, like a Segantini painting of the landscape it is set in, the story’s limpid surfaces conceal unsuspected depths. It is a moving tribute to the quiet dignity of four women who prevailed against the odds.
Martin Hood, Zurich
(3) ‘I read The Green Shawl straight through yesterday. Thoroughly enjoyable, so descriptive of how mountain lives changed, yet explanatory of the vestiges I see now in mentalities of Swiss colleagues and behaviours in the Western Alp; the lives of women are brilliantly portrayed, the continuities in place felicitously translated.’ JS
(4) ‘I have devoured The Green Silk Shawl. Riveting on many levels. Gave me a real appreciation of Switzerland. Love the details of lives and the great chain of history. Well done! DH