If you're looking to surprise book lovers on your gift list, you can't do better than giving them two paperback thrillers by Jacques Chessex.
Never heard of him? Join the club. The American club, that is.
Chessex, who died last year, was celebrated in Switzerland and France, winner of many prizes and the first non-French author to win the the Prix Goncourt. But things like that usually mean zip in the United States because we don't tend to read books in translation (Stieg Larsson aside). Currently, only about 3 percent of our books are translated from other languages. In Europe, it's more like 30 percent.
Chessex's two short thrillers available in English are so gripping it's hard to believe they were written in any language but English. The prose is taut and tense; the stories are knock-outs. Chessex lived in northwest Switzerland which is where both novellas are set. It's a bleak, unforgiving region he compares to the Carpathians.
A Jew Must Die takes place in 1942 close to Hitler's birthday, when most of Europe has been subjugated by the Nazis and the Soviet Union seems bound to fall next. A vicious Minister and a megalomaniacal Swiss Nazi want to rouse the Swiss people and offer Hitler a perverse birthday present: a dead Jew. They want this act to guarantee them power and a prominent place in the New Europe when Switzerland becomes part of The Reich. Their target? A prominent well-liked cattle merchant. How he dies, how they hide the body, and the initial response to the man's disappearance will shock you.
The Vampire of Ropraz isn't sleek and elegant: he's a brain-addled fiend who violates the corpses of beautiful girls in bestial ways. Set in 1905, it's a story of insanity, suspicion and profound ignorance. The countryside goes wild with panic and the crimes feel like all the "dreaded secrets of an evil world" have been set loose. Neither one of these novels could have endeared Chessex to his neighbors; they paint the Swiss of the region as superstitious, venal, and backward, steeped in cruelty.
At only around 100 pages, both thrillers pack more power than books many times their length, and raise profound questions about complicity and guilt. Even more striking, Chessex knew the Jew-killers he fashioned the first novel about, and his vampire novel is based on a true story.
At one point Chessex invokes Baudelaire's "To the Reader," implicating himself and his readers in "Folly, depravity, greed, mortal sin." You realize then that you've been reading much more than a thriller, and a different kind of chill settles in.