Every so often it’s the idea behind a novel which leads you to pick it up. Urs Widmer’s The Blue Soda Siphon is a case in point. Widmer is a Swiss writer who, despite the fact that Seagull books, and Donal McLaughlin, have now translated six of his titles into English, I had never heard of before (though it has to be said that I came across him while exploring their back catalogue). Yet as soon as I read the conceit behind this particular novel I wanted to read it. The premise was simple but intriguing: the narrator finds himself inexplicably returned to the time of his childhood, while his childhood self is transported to the present.
Though this is a playful novel, Widmer indicates that serious intentions lie behind it from the start when the present day (the novel was published in 1992) is strongly identified with the Gulf War:
“Oil fields were burning. Bombs were falling on cities. Missiles were flying along avenues at the height of traffic lights and detonating when they reached the end. People had stared at the sky like this before, in Dresden, in Coventry, and seen the planes, then the black dots falling towards them, and the women covered their children’s ears before they were blown to pieces.”
Mention of Dresden and Coventry links to the childhood he will return to in the 1940s.The transformation takes place when the narrator visits the cinema. On his exit he discovers the streets unusually quiet, and, returning home finds that his house “no longer had a bell but a new door.” Suffice to say, when he pounds on it, it is not his wife’s head which appears out of the window but that of an unknown man threatening him with the police. Considering the police a good idea, he visits the local station:
“The ‘Police’ sign outside was new too, with letters reminiscent of films from the Nazi period.”
Instinctively he boards a train for his home town, and only after encountering his father among a group of soldiers (it’s his bicycle he recognises) does he realise what has happened. He makes his way to his old house, encountering numerous amusing ironies. “Does the dog know you?” his mother asks, and when he tells his father he’s his son, his father replies, “Listen, any other time, yes. But I’m not in the mood for jokes today.” Only later do they discover their ‘real’ son is missing.
What prevents this being a literary Back to the Future is that there seems little danger of either narrator altering the other’s timeline. Nor is there much tension regarding returning to the correct time – it is assumed by the older man that all he need do is go back to the cinema, where his younger version also disappeared. Only after they have returned do we discover that child’s adventures in his future. Widmer also takes time to recount the stories of the films his narrators watch, containing strange echoes of their own story.
Widmer’s main concern seems to be the fragility of life. More than once he speaks of the threat of war. The capsules of the soda siphon are likened to bombs – and the bomb which fell on Hiroshima in particular, mentioned at the end of both parts of the story:
“Were I to see a black dot, I wouldn’t have much time anymore. Maybe my silhouette would etched on the wall of the house.”
The older narrator also meets a young woman at the top of a water tower who later throws herself off – perhaps the first memory of his childhood. In contrast, both visits out of time focus on the joy to be found there; neither the adult nor the boy seem at all worried or distressed. The older narrator returns to the present followed by his childhood dog which he gives to his daughter; the teenage girl, Lisette who looked after him as a child, returns his love before he leaves. From the top of the water tower he says:
“I haven’t seen anything as beautiful for a very long time.”
Recognising the fragility of his experience has heightened it.
The Blue Soda Siphon was as fascinating as I had hoped it would be. My late discovery of Widmer at least means that another five titles are already waiting.