Picture by, and Copyrights of, Lisa Nalven
Zora del Buono is a Swiss author, born in Zurich in 1962. She graduated with a degree in architecture from ETH Zurich in 1990 and worked as an architect until 1996. That same year she co-founded mare – Zeitschrift der Meere (www.mare.de) — a magazine covering maritime topics that are both journalistic and historic. She published her first novel Canitz’ Verlangen in 2008. The magazine 12 Swiss Books listed her fourth novel Gotthard as one of the best twelve Swiss books of 2016. Gotthard tells the stories of different people brought together by the construction of the Gotthard tunnel. Workers, prostitutes, cooks, and even a train lover — all of them from different parts of the world — meet and establish interesting and unusual relationships. Each of the characters in Gotthard reveals his or her problems and most intimate thoughts on women, marriage, men, and professional relationships. All these reflections are defined by the characters’ own personal connection to the Gotthard tunnel. In this interview, Zora del Buono discusses issues of culture and identity, architectural experiences, and the unexpected turns our lives can take through architecture.
Zora, you are an architect and a writer. How did you shift from building to writing?
After I studied architecture in Zurich, I went to Berlin before the wall fell, which actually did fall after finishing my studies. I worked in a small, all-female office. My job revolved around design, and I spent a lot of time on construction sites. I liked the smell of concrete. I did that for five years, and then I took a postgraduate course on film design. After that, I started a magazine. My first story was on a home for retired sailors in Italy. That was the beginning of my writing: I found many topics in that place. I think it was my architectural work in a mostly male domain that inspired me, as well as that report. So I began to write. In the sailors’ home, I was able to observe hierarchies and different classes, which are important themes in not just my first, but in all of my books. Gotthard is a working-class novel, whereas many stories today are set in offices.
In Gotthard you articulate the narrative around an architectural space: the construction of a tunnel. Was that a conscious choice? Do you construct your novels in this way?
Writing and construction are similar: you start with a blank sheet of paper and in the end, you have a book; like a house that you built. The rhythm of the novel is very similar to the construction process itself: everything happens in a consecutive order.
When I gave a reading of my first book, no one had heard of me, only my friends were there. One of them was a worker. Everyone else was an intellectual, or highly educated. We sat around the table, and that blue-collar friend of mine started talking about working in the tunnel. He said: “When you put your hand on the rock, it’s too hot to keep it there, especially because scorching water emerges from it.” Everyone stopped talking and listened to him. We talked about the tunnel, and I remember thinking “This is great!” He knew about life inside that darkness, where it’s hot and humid. In fact, it’s unbearable. Then I thought: “I need to go ahead and tell his story. He can’t write a book, so I’m going to do it for him.” The Gotthard tunnel is the longest in the world. It’s the third tunnel to run below the mountain range. The first one—also a railway tunnel—was built over a hundred years ago. It was very important for Northern Europe because it was a means of connecting to Italy – to the sun, and to the sea. Almost two hundred people died during the construction. It was unimaginably hard work. Today, there is sophisticated technology, but it’s still hard work. It fascinates me because it’s entirely different from building a house or a bridge.
The tunnel seems to function as a place where people from many different countries in Europe and professions meet. Is the tunnel something more than a simple tunnel?
Of course! It’s a place where different cultures clash. My intention was to show people from different countries working together. The metaphorical aspect of the tunnel has something to do with everyone’s dark side. The characters in Gotthard experience surprises because they don’t know everything about the project (the tunnel), and things happen unexpectedly. In the same way, we think we know ourselves well, but then we surprise ourselves. There are secrets, like the murder. This, however, doesn’t turn the novel into a thriller: it remains something different. And I wanted to tell the process of how things suddenly turn into something different: how in the end you find out the bad secret, and everything comes out as an eruption. The tunnel and the stone are fixed and hard for years but still something can break.
All characters have a different relationship with the tunnel: some hate it and some love it. Does the tunnel have an emotional function as well?
Yes; during my research about the tunnel, I realized that the guys really loved their job. It’s hard manual labor, but when they’re done, they have something to admire. But these men also cry inside the tunnel because they spend hours there, and it‘s so dark and hot. These men really are a physical part of the rock. That means that they have a really strong body too. Everything happens inside the tunnel: it’s hard work, but they also feel protected. I once wrote an article about a journey from Southampton to New York on the Queen Elizabeth 2. There was a woman there who was part of the cleaning staff, and she felt like she was part of the ship because she felt safe inside of it. She didn’t go ashore to go shopping or do other things. I think the tunnels are a little bit like that: you can be in a relationship with them. That can be a good relationship or a bad one. That’s why I created the eight characters. Everyone has a different relationship with the tunnel.
For Robert Filz, the tunnel is a sign of masculinity. And indeed the tunnel seems to represent a male world. But there are women in your novel too. What is the function of women in this atmosphere?
The first tunnel was built in 1875. People came to the mountains and there was nothing: everything had to be done. Men came to work, and women went there to clean and cook. That community turned into a little village. They even had prostitutes! Women and men need each other. For example, they have female nicknames for the machines, like Gabi I. Men construct their own female universe. Many of the men don’t want women in the tunnel. Except for Saint Barbara, their patron saint and good luck charm. They have statues of her down there. Everyone adores her, especially the Catholic men. And yet, they think it’s bad luck to share the tunnel with women, like on a ship. But men don’t just need women for sex, but also to feel protected. At the local bar, I met women who were nice and rough at the same time. They were harsh and like big mothers. And then, you have all these prostitutes from South America, lots of them. One of the guys married one of them. After so many years in the village, you have a lot of relationships. It’s a really complex social system that has nothing to do with the average society. I met one girl, a cleaning lady, who made herself ugly on purpose because she didn’t want any attention from the men she was cleaning for.
The description of Fritz Bergundthal’s flat back in Berlin looks like the tunnel: it is dark with no windows. Is Fritz’s life meant to be a tunnel?
I wanted to portray an outsider coming in. Fritz is not involved in the construction of the tunnel. His hobby is taking pictures of trains. I wanted to show somebody who’s different: Fritz is stuck in a meticulous routine. Everything has to be on schedule. He‘s an accountant; his whole life is about numbers. For him, the freedom to go see the Gotthard tunnel is a big adventure. But he doesn’t expect to get involved in something bigger than that, in something criminal. A lot of people have a desire to get out of their regular lives. They are fascinated by impure lives, but they don’t allow themselves to act on it. All the characters in Gotthard experience change. I wanted to show that every life can be interrupted and changed completely. It’s a big change for Fritz. The workers in the tunnel are much more hands-on people by far, while he leads an abstract life that revolves around money and numbers. He loves trains, which bring you to see the world. Trains are great because they take you to faraway places, but they run on tracks. You know where you’re going; you’re safe. That’s the opposite of a ship, for example. Fritz would never go on a ship. Trains are all he can do. At the end of the novel, the question is: can I take the next step?
Gotthard is going to be performed in the stage next January. Are you involved in the production and adaption?
The composer and the actor wanted to get to know me, and so I had a number of conversations with them. But I’m not in charge of the play by any means. It’s a musical theatre. So far, the Glauser Quintet has only performed the plays of Swiss author Friedrich Glauser. Gotthard is the first one by a contemporary author. With their music and lyrics, the ensemble creates its very own atmosphere, which has a lot do with sounds and emotions. I agree that the construction of the tunnel, with its noise and darkness, makes for a very good show. Adding the connotations of a charged, sexualized atmosphere can create a dense and exciting piece, I’m sure. The first performance will be in Zurich in January. I will not have seen any of it by then, so I’ll just go and be surprised.