Category: Children's Books

Jürg Schubiger
Rotraut Susanne Berner (Illustrator)

Als der Tod zu uns kam
[When death came calling]


It ‘s as if one has wandered through the alleyways of Rotraut Susanne Berner’s Wimmel books and is now standing before a completely unexpected scenery: life behind the facade of bustling activity, all sorts of pleasures, colourful folderol and minor to middling mishaps. As if all players – children, adults, cats, dogs, flies, snails, fish – were suddenly standing in front of their homes, each one isolated from the others, not fearful, but removed from daily life. As if they were standing expectantly there and wanted to tell us something – something that each and every one of them urgently has in mind.

Thus we enter the illustrated book Als der Tod zu uns kam (i.e. When death came to us), in which Swiss author Jürg Schubiger has a young girl tell the story and Rotraut Susanne Berner takes us on a little journey behind the scenes of the world’s hustle and bustle. In each picture - in which at the beginning, people and animals, a small boy with a teddy bear and the young girl return our gaze - the world still seems completely open. The houses all look alike, have no doors or windows, and we see haystacks inside the entrances of their stable annexes. There is a street with no name, a bridge without a handrail and a well whose perilous depths we can only guess at. The illustrator has produced these symbols in her usual naive, reduced, but very friendly, inviting manner. Even younger children can quickly recognise these metaphors: we see a wholesome world, but one that is also unprotected: “There was a time once when we didn’t even know its name. Death? Never heard of it.“

We adults know: this time was an extended moment of childhood, felt as a happiness that took no thought for the morrow. Our teeth got no holes, our foreheads no wrinkles. That’s exactly how it was, for an extended moment. Then came death, to a blackbird that froze in front of the kitchen window, to Granny, who died in the hospital, to an aunt who developed cancer, a schoolmate on the street. And we imagined death, riding on a coal-black horse, as the Grim Reaper, of course. Terrible, unfathomable, pitiless.

And now, in this little book, we see a pitiful figure hobbling into this wholesome world; death, easily recognisable with his mouse-grey skull of skin and bone. But seen this way, there is nothing evil about him at all, in the way he enters the picture as a poor wayfarer with a black umbrella, small shoulder-bag and red bandanna with white polka-dots wrapped around his head to shield him from the sun. But then – oops! – he stumbles over a snail shell, by accident, of course, and already this absent-minded, clumsy fellow’s dilemma is made plain: people laugh about his awkwardness. “This happens to me over and over again,“ says death. “I pick up a glass in my hand and it breaks. I turn on the faucet and everything is flooded knee-deep.” And so not only the snail dies, not just a flower stem is snapped. No, people who have not yet recognised the dangers inherent in life imitate death, injure themselves through cockiness, laugh … until something truly terrible happens. The girl’s house burns down, her little brother dies.

Schubiger and Berner tell the story of the wayfarer death very sensitively. Death is no figure of horror, rather a pitiable old fellow who is vexed by the suffering that he causes again and again. And the bereaved survivors therefore take their leave of him in a friendly and respectful manner. He is part of life. The people have understood this now. They rebuild the house together, with windows, doors, locks, they put a grate over the well, set up warning signs, fences – and have children. And they build a hospital. Life’s colourfulness has been kept, but everything appears more orderly now, more secure, predictable. That reassures us. A bit. But it also makes us frown.

The most hopeful aspect of the final picture is the people who now come together and smile at us as if to say: “Now we know how vulnerable we are. That is why we stick together. And life is sweet and good, in spite of our vulnerability.” Those are the messages that Schubiger and Berner give us to take with us on our way, when we stand in front of the facades of the hustling, bustling world once again.
Siggi Seuß

By Siggi Seuß, 01.01.2012

​Siggi Seuß, freelance journalist, radio script writer and translator, has been writing reviews of books for children and young people for many years.

Translated by Edith C. Watts