Translator: Madeleine LaRue | Author: Peter Bichsel | Work: Der Busant | Original language: German | Genre: Fiction
Der Busant is the name of the title story in a 1985 collection by the German-speaking Swiss author Peter Bichsel. It takes its name from a medieval French romance, a sort of epic poem about two lovers who elope, become separated, and spend the rest of their lives searching for each other. The catalyst of this story, the reason for the lovers’ separation, is a hawk or buzzard — in Old French, a busart, and in medieval German, a Busant — that steals a ring off the throat of the beautiful young princess Magelone. In Bichsel’s story, the princess has been recast as a drunken waitress in the sleepy Swiss town of Solothurn; her lover is no longer a dashing prince but a homeless vagabond. Though we sense that happiness might indeed be possible for these two creatures, circumstances continually conspire to keep them apart. One such circumstance is the nostalgic aristocrat named Herr Busant, who “beautifies the town and makes it unlivable”; another is the author himself, Peter Bichsel, who, although he may wish to bring the story to completion, finds himself easily distracted and confounded by the weight of history, the expectations of narrative, and even the stubbornness of his own characters. It is this circumstance, this inescapable one, that sets the story in motion at the same time that it makes its resolution impossible. And that is the theme, more or less, of the entire collection of stories, and so its title simply had to be something like Der Busant. But The Hawk somehow sounded stupid, and had no historical resonances; The Buzzard reminded me of a cowboy murder mystery, and I couldn’t bring myself to call any character Mr. Buzzard — Herr Busant sounds elegant and wealthy, Mr. Buzzard decidedly neither. The Old English equivalent of Busant is Busard, which would mean nothing to a contemporary English reader, and the oldest form of hawk — hafoc — was alarmingly, if perhaps appropriately, close to “havoc.” A solution finally presented itself — by accident, as they so often do — and I ended up translating both the story and the collection as The Goshawk. A goshawk is, scientifically, similar to a buzzard, being a member of the Accipitridae family and enjoying wide distribution across northern Eurasia. The most common variety of goshawk (the Northern Goshawk) is even conveniently called Accipiter gentilis, or the gentle or noble hawk: an aristocratic enough name for Herr Busant. The Goshawk, moreover, is already a literary bird: Chaucer mentions it in The Canterbury Tales, which, though not necessarily analogous to the Alsatian tale of Der Busant, is at least roughly contemporary with it, and suggests some of the appropriate literary and historical references to anglophone readers.
Madeleine LaRue is Associate Editor and Director of Publicity of Music & Literature.