Given his reputation as a writer's writer, Gerhard Meier is one of the least well-known contemporary German-language writers in the Anglophone world. A Swiss, Meier came to prominence in 1979 with the novel 'Toteninsel', the first of what was eventually to be a series of four separate but linked books. 'Isle of the Dead' is the first English translation of what is now regarded as a milestone in modern Swiss literature.
It's one of those books in which by design almost nothing happens. Two men in their early sixties take an uneventful walk through the Swiss town of Amrein. They are locals who have known each other for years and did their military service together. One talks, disconnectedly, about details and incidents from family and local history: the other listens, muses, responds, records. The book is short - a hundred pages - but so densely woven from repeated motifs that slow reading - and a second reading - are advised to savour the patterns that Meier has woven out of unremarkable memories and anecdotes and the banal facts of light and weather.
Like its author, who in spite of winning major prizes and the admiration of Peter Handke kept a studiedly low profile, 'Isle of the Dead' is deliberately provincial in subject matter and low key in style. At first the title seems an odd one: but it slowly becomes apparent that the world that Baur the talker reveals in scraps and anecdotes and on which Bindschadler the thinker reflects is death-haunted as well as vital. Meier has the phenomenologist's habit of giving equal attention to everything, without particular emphasis or exaggeration. The result has more in common with the texture of music or tapestry than the linear motion and clear narrative arc of the conventional novel.
Readers of Handke, Sebald, Stifter, and Proust should find Meier congenial. This translation by Burton Pike is a service to English-speaking readers.