My journey to Switzerland, a landlocked country dominated by the Alps housing around 8 million people, is represented by “Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story” by native writer and artist Frederik Peeters. This book is a graphic novel, mixing imagery and words: the first such book on my travels since Aleksander Zograf’s “Regards From Serbia”.
Whilst Zograf's Serbian graphic novel depicted the human side of the military battle between men of differing ideologies, Switzerland’s “Blue Pills” depicts a much more personal battle between Man and virus. In this case the battle of a man, a woman and a child with HIV.
This book forms a comic-strip memoir of Peeters’ romance with a HIV-positive woman named Cati (whose young son is also HIV-positive). The plot forms a series of episodes - ranging from his first meeting with Cati, to their relationship developing, her revelation of her condition and her son’s ongoing treatment. The boy gets sick during the course of this narrative, and this effectively serves to cement the fragile relationship between the two protagonists. As such, this is a story of love formed out of adversity, and it is honestly and touchingly depicted through Peeters' words and images. Although it must be said that the translation into English is rather clunky at times. However, given that my own foreign language skills are limited it would be churlish to labour this point!
What Peeters also manages to depict is the way in which a potentially devastating issue such as HIV can be incorporated into the ordinary, the everyday routine. In one sequence, Cati is shown exhaustively checking her gums each morning for signs of bleeding. In another, Peeters discusses the best brand of condom with a baffled male friend (Manix Infini 002, for those of a curious mindset). The daily routines, the frequent hospital visits, the incomprehension of Cati's son when he first starts swallowing anti-retroviral drugs, mashed up in his breakfast-time yoghurt: all these are rendered on the page with a compassionate clarity that could only come from experience.
And it not just about the words - Peeters's fluid, slashing, unfailingly evocative ink brushwork documents the psychological changes he's gone through to great effect. Sure-handedly depicted facial expressions and body language tell a lot of the story, and almost every page is punctuated with a silent panel or two that suggests the way Peeters's newly expanded awareness of his mortality has made him more aware of the world he lives in, too. The penultimate chapter of this book features an interesting visual metaphor: after a doctor tells Peeters that he has "as much chance of catching AIDS as you have of running into a white rhinoceros on your way out", he imagines himself stalked everywhere by the rhino. This is an engaging, touching and surprisingly humorous book. Despite its potentially depressing subject matter, it manages to culminate in an ending which is both heartbreaking, affecting and ultimately hopeful – in the most positive way.
Peeters’ book engaged me to the degree that I made an effort to Google him to see how he and his family are now doing; and I was delighted to find out that (as of 2008, anyway) they are still together, still happy, their son is growing up and they have a healthy daughter, born by Caesarean to minimise the risk of infection through blood. Sorry, if that provides a spoiler to the end of the book but let’s face it, there are much worse spoilers in life.
Does this book tell me much about Switzerland? Well, as I am finding on my travels; there are two types of works on my journey. The first type is the narrative travel journal (such as the last book, Charles Connelly’s account of his stay in Liechtenstein), which give more detail of a traveller’s - i.e. outsider’s view of a country. The second type are those accounts by native authors set in their own countries, such as this one. Whilst we may not learn about the key landmarks and tourist trails through these books, what we do gain is a glimpse of the everyday lives and concerns of people living in these countries. Lives and concerns which often, I have found so far, are generally universal.
And so I bid a fond farewell to Switzerland. I would have liked to travel from Geneva to my next stop of Berlin in Germany by train, as I am told the scenery – especially on the Swiss side - is spectacular. However it seems travel between these two neighbouring countries is not cheap. A train journey between the two – as well as taking over 10 hours – would have cost the equivalent of £165.
Therefore I opt for an EasyJet flight (still not cheap at £134, but it only takes an hour and a half!) from Geneva into Berlin Schönefeld airport. Schönefeld Airport is situated outside the city proper, so I take the short walk to the Berlin Schönefeld Flughafen railway station and catch the Berlin S-Bahn S9 line’s “RE AirportExpress train” which is the only direct link to the city centre of Berlin.
Thus I arrive in Berlin proper, and the next leg of my journey: “Summerhouse, Later” a collection of short stories by acclaimed German author, Judith Hermann, of which more in my next post.