Flurin Spescha grew up in a small village in the Swiss Alps speaking a dying language. Today less than 1 percent of the country’s population know Switzerland’s fourth national language, but for five years the 37-year-old writer has published plays, stories, and novels in Romansh anyway. “I often wonder for whom am I writing?” says Spescha.
Though Romansh speakers are a dwindling population, Spescha is working to help the language survive. He hopes to see more novels written in Romansh that “have the quality that deserves translation.” It’s a goal that would’ve been very difficult just 15 years ago, since it wasn’t until 1982 that Romansh’s five idioms–originally spoken in several remote valleys of the Grisons canton in the Swiss Alps–were finally given a standard written form, Romansh-Grison. For years the lack of standardization had threatened to smother the language and culture of the Romansh people. It didn’t help to have a heavy influx of German tourists either.
“Minority communities often tend to have feelings of inferiority,” says Spescha. “The Romansh didn’t have the confidence to say, “OK, you can come skiing here, you can come buy a second house here, but you should learn our language also.’ The signs in the villages were all written in German.”
Spescha, whose father, Hendrik, was a well-known poet, says that this sense of inferiority extended to the region’s literature. “Romansh writers from the old generation felt themselves to be great poets. As soon as my generation came along in the 60s and 70s and said, “We have to compare ourselves with the best writers in the world, not just the best Romansh ones,’ these same authors said, “We are not poets. We only write for our people.”‘
But Spescha now sees a renaissance among the young–boosted by the language’s standardization. “The young people that speak Romansh are modern Europeans. They do not have these feelings of inferiority.”
According to Spescha, almost half of Switzerland’s Romansh speakers today live outside their linguistic borders and many are actively trying to keep their language and culture alive. For his part, Spescha, who lives in Zurich, organizes the annual Literary Days Festival during which Romansh and other Swiss writers give readings. Three years ago he published the first novel written in Romansh-Grison. Fieu e flomma (“Fire and Flame”) is a crime story that revolves around a CIA plot to destroy the Romansh culture–a departure from his other work.
“It is not my style. But in this case I wanted to reach a lot of Romansh people and convince them that Romansh-Grison is readable, understandable, and enjoyable. This is interesting for Romansh people to read, but not anyone else.”
Spescha believes that another way for Romansh to survive is to make it accessible to other cultures. “Instead of trying to preserve Romansh like a museum piece, it is important to adapt it to the bilingual reality in a creative way. This can happen by writing in more than one language or making translations.” In his play Gaudenz characters speak both Romansh and German in such a way that the content is understandable to German speakers who don’t know Romansh.
To prepare for a reading tour of the United States this month, Spescha collected his published short stories and had them translated into English from German and Romansh. He plans to bring 200 copies of his book Ceremonies in his suitcase. “As long as the Romansh remains within its own borders it cannot survive.”
Spescha will give a free reading at the Voices of Romansh mini-festival at the International House, 1414 E. 59th, Thursday, March 7, at 8. Call 753-2274. Also appearing will be the Swiss pop singer Corin Curschellas and her band the Recyclers (see Critic’s Choice in Section Three), performing songs in Romansh and English.