Martin Suter: when the writer becomes the story

Shooting in the street: Martin Suter revisits the neighbourhood of his childhood in Zurich for the documentary based on his life. Carlo Pisani

Martin Suter is one of the most prolific Swiss writers. His work spans novels, screenplays, theatre plays, songs, short stories, and newspaper columns. Success permitted him to live between Ibiza, Morocco, Guatemala, and his hometown Zurich, where we caught up with him. 

This content was published on July 11, 2020 - 11:00

Suter is in Switzerland right now to revisit his past and present in a docufiction that carries his name. In it, the writer also explores scenes of some of his fictional body of work, meeting the characters he created, reenacted by professional actors.

“My books are not about me, I try to keep out of my books”, said Suter, during a break in the shooting of the film. But being the author, Suter concedes that his words are the product of what his eyes see. 

Suter has always been a keen observer of the Zurich elite and its mores – not losing sight of the underclasses over which this elite steps on.

He gained local prominence when he decided to leave behind a successful career as creative director of an advertising agency to pursue literary work, including his online column, Business Class, in the late 1990s. 

The column was a fictional but stinging chronicle of Switzerland’s managerial upper strata. Business Class first appeared in Weltwoche, a weekly with antifascist roots in the 1930s, before its more recent rightward turn. 

The column then moved to the Tages-Anzeiger, where it appears in the paper’s weekend supplement. It also turned into two books before he took a hiatus of more than a decade. In 2018, Suter resurrected the column on his website. The business elite, he pointed out in the interview, hasn’t changed even after the financial crash of 2008 and the coronavirus pandemic.

The commercial success enjoyed by his books did not win him many compliments from the critics. But it is the plot that makes his stories so gripping, rather than their characterizations or social awareness.

But these are not necessarily literary sins. Suter’s characters struggle with identity crises and life’s twists and turns, and his sets – be it a restaurant kitchen or a prestigious law office – are crafted not in lengthy descriptions, but through the interactions of his characters.

The choice of names for his characters is also very peculiar, even for a French or English reader. There’s the lawyer Blank, who goes through a mid-life crisis and develops personality disorders after consuming psychedelic mushrooms. His counterpart, a sexless, amoral and impious business shark goes by the name of Pius Ott.

And then there’s the detective Johann Friedrich von Allmen, the protagonist of a series of six books that Suter has worked on over the last ten years. The aristocratic preposition “von” is an obvious joke for German-Swiss ears since Allmen denotes a lowly, commoner’s status.

When asked about the names of his characters, Suter smiled. “I never thought of my names carrying any special meaning,” he said. “I just wanted to make them short and easy to be pronounced in translation”. 

One thing, though, is clear: Suter is a writer who loves all of his characters, so much so that the concept behind the production filmed right now in Zurich doesn’t sound too far-fetched. 

But from what we could see on the set, the narrative could prove challenging. If it works out or not, we will see next autumn, when the film is scheduled to debut on the silver screen. 

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