Capricho. A Summer in My Garden

Beat Sterchi

German, Diogenes, Zurich, 2021

“The sure sign of a beginner is scything too fast, hoeing too fast. Flurrying in general. I knew that. But working slowly must be practised.”

“I thought of the elderly people in the village, whom I’d seen still hoeing their terraced huertos. The way they raised the hoe and let it fall without much force, without the hoe snagging in the earth, which I kept doing. How skilfully they grasped weeds and roots as they went, freeing them from the soil and pushing them into straggling piles alongside. Legs apart, bent over at a right angle, and very, very slowly but for hours – that was how the elderly hoed.”

For years he’s been wanting to write about the history of the Catalan mountain village where he retreats every summer to write. This time, he means to get started. Beat Sterchi’s first-person narrator has already made plenty of notes and read extensively about the little village, which has a colourful past. He could start right away.

But the writing isn’t going well. He keeps losing the thread and leaving his desk. Seeking distraction and inspiration in his garden, his ‘huerto’ on the outskirts of the village, he finds himself going there more and more often with his hoe and notebook. First he has to get rid of all the weeds – only then can he plant vegetables. And he has big plans: potatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, onions, tomatoes, courgettes.

The villagers have known him for ages, this city-dweller, but now he’s making regular visits to his garden, the older people are only too happy to peer over his shoulder. They’re liberal with their advice, but they also offer practical help. He’s still got a lot to learn, they know that for sure. Potatoes can’t just be planted whenever you fancy, as Ramón explains to him:

‘The full moon isn’t until Saturday, the day after tomorrow, so we’ll have to wait!
‘Are you serious?’ I asked.
‘If you don’t wait, you’ll end up with nothing but weeds and no potatoes.’
My shake of the head didn’t escape his notice, of course. ‘Look!’ he said, ‘ask anybody in the village, doesn’t matter who. You won’t find anybody planting potatoes before the full moon, not even old Marcos.’

The narrator has to learn that life in the village moves at a deliberate pace: ‘Working slowly takes practice.’ He gradually loses sight of his writing project, instead carrying the produce home from his garden in a blue bucket (still a rather meagre yield), as well as reading books and newspapers – and filling his notebooks with countless observations and conversations. He speaks to nearly everybody who has stayed in the village. There aren’t many of them left, because the young people move away and rarely come back. Two farms remain, and a large pig ranch. The place is falling into decay, yet its people have plenty to tell – especially to the city-dweller in their midst, who ends up learning quite a lot about the present, too.

Writing in brief chapters, Beat Sterchi sends his narrator out exploring everyday life in the village, paying close attention as he goes. He sees and hears new things everywhere he goes. Capricho is the moving portrait of a small, incredibly endearing community that knows how to defend itself with gentle persistence against wind and weather and all attempts to hurry it.

Text by Martin Zingg

Capricho. Ein Sommer in meinem Garten
Diogenes, Zurich
Translation rights
Susanne Bauknecht,
Publication date


Beat Sterchi

Beat Sterchi, born in Berne in 1949, moved to Canada in 1970 and studied English. From 1975 to 1977 he was a language teacher in Tegucigalpa (Honduras) and studied Latin American literature. Until 1982 he engaged in further studies in Canada and taught German and English in Montreal. Beat Sterchi now lives in Berne as a freelance writer.

Photo: Franziska Rothenbühler