Twelve Nights is a superbly atmospheric novella of a man’s journey through a snow-laden valley in search of peace and reconciliation. Urs Faes’ tale is a mere 84 pages long yet the emotional depth he conveys is extraordinary.
It’s December, twelve days before Christmas, when Manfred arrives in a town deep in Germany’s Black Forest. He’s returned home after forty years in exile, estranged from his family and his younger brother, Sebastian. The reason for the schism is revealed slowly via snippets of information whose lack of specificity were tantalising. Only in the closing pages do we fully appreciate that thwarted ambition followed by the rejection of love left Manfred so angry and bitter he had committed an act so unforgiveable that a separation from the family was his only option.
But now he’s back and at the inn that overlooks the family farm he learns that during the years of his exile abroad, Sebastian suffered repeated calamities. He has become a solitary figure, a recluse who rarely ventures beyond the farm. The only indication the townsfolk get that he is still alive is the smoke that issues from the chimney at his farmhouse. Manfred hopes his brother will leave his isolated existence once more time and agree to a meeting so they can lay to rest their hostility.
While he waits for his answer, Manfred walks the old familiar trails through the valley, recalling happier times when this was his childhood playground. He and Sebastian had played at hunting among the fir trees and built dams in the local streams; “scrapping and scuffling with each other sometimes, but through it all devoted brothers who loved one another.”
Twelve Nights grabbed my attention from the first page with its image of a man walking through swirling snow towards a valley clothed in grey mist. Almost every page drips with atmosphere, vividly portraying the forested valleys in a way that makes them feel both real and unreal.
… the snow was falling once more, in dense flakes on ths early evening; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors.
Adding to the overall impression of other worldliness is Manfred’s recollection that his journey coincides with local legend that this is the time of year when dark forces are released, threatening disorder, peril and misfortune in the community.
His mother so feared the twelve nights between the feast of St Thomas and Epiphany, she surrounded their home every year with herbs and berries as protection against the evil sprits. Her superstitious fears have never completely disappeared in the valley with the regulars at the inn interpreting the heavy snow and icy temperatures as signs that the spirits of the dead are once more on the move.
The setting makes this a highly enjoyable read but I also loved the layer-by-layer way in Urs Faes built the character of Manfred. This is a man who we come to understand has been haunted by feelings of guilt for decades and a deep sense that there is a void in his life. He’s not in good health so this visit home could be his final chance to find peace through Sebastian’s forgiveness.
But as he walks the familiar paths he is forced to question whether that is all he wants. Is he also seeking salvation, the restoration of that part of his soul that has been lost for forty years?
The tone is melancholic but by the end of the tale, we reach Twelfth Night – Epiphany – with its promise of new beginnings. Symbolic perhaps of the reconciliation and a renewed relationship for which Manfried longs.
Twelve Nights by Urs Faes, translated by Jamie Lee Searle: Footnotes
Urs Faes is a Swiss writer, the author of fourteen novels, several poetry collections and a number of plays. He has been twice nominated for the Swiss Book Prize. Twelve Nights was published originally in German in 2018. Jamie Lee Searle’s translation is the first book by Faes to be available in English. It was published by Harvill Secker in 2020 . I can only hope this is not the last of his books to be made available in English.