“It was strange that people who were so reserved and reticent, even toward their confessor, were willing to disclose their secrets provided there was a chance they would see them in print.”
The fictional village of Dichtersruhe is a charming location in the Swiss Alps. Popular with summer tourists, who enjoy walks in the local woods, it closes down during winter when just the long term residents are made to feel welcome. Many of the families have lived there for generations with links through marriage drawing them closer together. Yet they never discuss their shared, secret ambitions. Most of them are writers. They spend free time working on poems, essays, memoirs and novels. Manuscripts are regularly sent to the popular publishing houses and then reworked following rejection.
A new parish priest, Father Cornelius, arrives and struggles to fit in. From a teaching post at a seminary, he has been banished to this backwater following scurrilous accusations. The old priest has little time for the incomer, indeed for anything other than writing his memoirs. Then the accepted ways, the coexistence of gentle rivalries, are thrown into disarray by the arrival of another stranger. Bernhard Fuchs introduces himself as a publisher from Lucerne. Following fearful omens involving foxes, Cornelius recognises Fuchs as the devil incarnate.
“what is the key that is capable of forcing the mind of an aspiring writer who has tried everything without result?”
A Devil Comes to Town, by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel), is a short yet multi-layered take down of the conceits and jealousies of writers. There is darkness and tension in the tale but also humour in its observations. Opening with a renowned author clearing out the many manuscripts he has been sent by aspiring authors, all eager to have him read their work and thereby become its advocate, the story quickly focuses on a manuscript from an unknown writer regarding a strange tale told him by a priest many years before. Although somewhat meta this structural device offers the reader a picture of one of the prices of authorial success, and the lengths writers will go to if there is any chance of emulating or otherwise gaining from those who have already been published.
Some may deny it but writers wish to be read and revered. They have their egos and also deep rooted sensitivities. They struggle with continued rejection in favour of those whose work they remain unimpressed by. Those who achieve publication often castigate readers who fail to recognise the wonder of their work.
In Dichtersruhe the arrival of a publisher is grasped as an opportunity. The residents vie for the man’s attention, offering drinks, meals and other inducements in an attempt to curry notice and favour. When a writing competition is announced that will lead to inclusion in a published series, manuscripts are eagerly submitted. As these are filtered there is bitter division between residents whose work is rejected and those still being considered.
What happens when a winner is selected who no other writer believes is deserving?
The story told is fable like with nuggets of detail leading the reader to question the veracity of the various narrators. Authors often skate between truth and fiction, between writing what they know and pure invention. Is truth of any importance when the aim is to entertain?
And thus another layer is added to the unfolding tale: do writers truly behave like this? What are readers of this book being encouraged to believe?
The author has created a fabulous take down of the literati with a blending of fiction, reported rivalries and real world suspicion. It is a captivating, clever and deliciously teasing little tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.