Author Daniel de Roulet writes with the “esprit de contradiction”
- 01 Feb 2024 9:10 am CET
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When Geneva-based author Daniel de Roulet writes a novel, he is driven by the spirit of contradiction. And he associates literature with a political concern: to give a voice to those who are not officially allowed to speak. He explains what this is all about in an interview on his 80th birthday (February 4).
"History is always told from above, I tell it from below," Daniel de Roulet told the Keystone-SDA news agency. Two examples of this from his more recent work are "Die rote Mütze" (2024) and "Zehn unbekümmerte Anarchistinnen" (2017). One book deals with the fate of Swiss mercenaries and the other with forced emigration - both historical facts.
"I find it tragic that people say that Switzerland has always been neutral or that it is the oldest democracy in the world," says de Roulet. "But where our wealth comes from, or the less than glorious problem of mercenaries, does not feature in the official historical narrative." The author counters this with his skepticism towards the official portrayal of Swiss history, his spirit of contradiction or "esprit de contradiction" - and he does so with literature.
Facts and imagination
De Roulet tells his stories from a perspective "where the facts are incomplete". In the case of the mercenaries, it is well documented how the career of the head of the regiment progressed. But what the mercenaries' lives were like is not documented. "So I need my own imagination to get a complete picture."
He pronounces the word "imagination" in French, which is not the same as fantasy in German. Imagination" gives rise to "une nouvelle image", a new image. "Art, including literature, has to do with imagination. Something new is created."
De Roulet speaks French and German. His father came from French-speaking Switzerland, his mother from German-speaking Switzerland. He grew up in a Protestant vicarage in the small watchmaking town of St. Imier in the Bernese Jura. His father was a people-oriented pastor, as de Roulet writes in "Letter to my father" (2020). In this 80-page letter, he paints a loving picture of his parents and his origins; in his novels, he also treats his characters in a similarly philanthropic manner, such as Valentine, the narrator of the emigrant story, or the mercenary Samuel Buchaye from Geneva. Because the reader should also "develop empathy towards these people", says de Roulet in conversation.
Author shows attitude
However, he has given up the Protestantism of his parents' home in favor of atheism. "I am someone whose motto is 'neither God nor Lord'." - An attitude that clearly shines through in "Ten Carefree Anarchists", for example. In general, de Roulet makes no secret of his own "I" in his books. "If I give a voice to those who have none, then that is also my voice," he says.
However, the role that this "I" plays in his books has changed over the course of his life as a writer. His early novel "Double" (1998) was "totally autobiographical". Against the backdrop of the Fichenskandal, he used his secret service files to turn his own life, his affiliation with the autonomous left, into a novel. "I read my own life through the keyhole of the police. That was a shock for me and good material." He is proud of the fact that "no other author has yet dealt with the fiche scandal".
His more recent novels no longer focus on the autobiographical; instead, de Roulet uses autobiographical elements as a framework. In the last chapter of "The Red Cap", for example, he tells how he came to the story of the eight mercenaries through his own ancestor, Jacques-André Lullin de Chateauvieux, the owner of the mercenary regiment.
Between "Double" and "Die rote Mütze" were works critical of science on topics such as nuclear power and the genetic engineering novel "Blaugrau" (1999). "I was under the illusion that I could arouse scientists' interest in literature," says de Roulet.
After studying humanities in Paris and Geneva, he first worked as an architect, then in IT, where he managed the computer center of the Geneva Cantonal Hospital until 1997. "Literature was more of an experiment for me at the beginning." He had imagined "being able to bring science and literature together", for example with "The Dancer and the Chemist" (2003). Because literature looks at science from the outside, de Roulet's idea was that it could show new perspectives, such as how research fields could come together. "That's why dissidents like Robert Oppenheimer or the Soviet Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov were important to me in my books about nuclear power."
Own literary voice
In the meantime, de Roulet has found his very own literary voice. He tells the stories of an entire community, a society, perhaps Switzerland. "I am interested in where society comes from, in which direction it is going." And literature has a role to play in this: "only literature gives the floor to those less fortunate", de Roulet concludes his mercenary story; or in "Staatsräson" (2021) he writes: "All in all, only the novel remains to question the truth".
The 80-year-old author says that it is absolutely necessary to counter conventional historiography with a narrative from below. "If we left that to the nationalists alone, we would have William Tell and Heidi. For me, such nationalist kitsch is a lie." His literature is "the sand in the gears": "If I didn't do that, it would be as if I agreed with it."