Late Guests

Gertrud Leutenegger

German, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 2020

“Orion is dead! Unnoticed in the night. Fear and love, fury and escape, all of my heart’s happiness and its disturbing irrationality coincide in the moment as I breathe in the smell of the moldering wooden door.”

Late Guests is a novel about life and death, love and escape – and how these are connected. Gertrud Leutenegger takes us along on a dreamlike journey through the night to the small village in Tessin from which the narrator had fled a long time ago. The story is told from the perspective of this woman, whom the reader gets to know better over the course of the novel and yet can never quite grasp. She has returned because Orion, her former companion and the father of her child, has died. She notes with astonishment: “And I’d never left.”

This return to her childhood village occurs on two levels – on that of the outside world, real and global, and on that of the remembered, poetic reality of her childhood. As the night progresses, the protagonist’s leaps of thought become ever more intertwined – her former lover’s death, for example, with the plight of the refugees on the island of Lesbos. In the village, too, realities begin to overlap as asylum seekers encounter Mardi Gras revelers in beautiful and ugly masks, who immediately fall back into predetermined roles.

The richness of this confined rustic cosmos is astonishing. It is filled with lively people like the Sicilian innkeeper or the big-hearted, slightly cracked waitress Serafina. Thanks to his efforts on behalf of refugees in Sicily, the innkeeper remains a link between his first and second homelands. And it is Serafina who, on the Feast of the Epiphany, makes the decisive, ambiguous pronouncement, “The later in the evening, the more attractive the guests.”

Yet the secret hero is Orion—his name evocative of the marvelous, non-conformist, mythical celestial hunter—who rarely left his village and spent his life unsuccessfully reaching for the stars. Orion was no saint, excessively devoted to alcohol, creative but unsuccessful—a failed life with broken dreams, a figure at once beautiful and ugly? Leutenegger does not judge. She shows. She recounts. She sets the weightlessness of death against the tribulations of life. And she portrays love as hope for people on the run who have landed in this small village in Tessin. Leutenegger’s writing is rich, filled with creative impulse and with detail: “Lindens burdened with the village’s stories.”

These village stories of individual fates but also of the frenzied communal celebration of carnival touch us, evoke images, shock and at the same time make us smile. The masked dance reveals in the village a mirror image of the globalized world, of our world, a world we cannot escape because it always catches up with us. This village could be anywhere.

Text by Jan-Jesse Müller

Späte Gäste
Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main
Translation rights
Nora Mercurio,
Publication date
August 2020


Gertrud Leutenegger

Gertrud Leutenegger was born in 1948 in the Swiss canton of Schwyz. Since 1975 she has published novels, short stories, poems and plays, for which she has received numerous awards. Having spent many years in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, she now lives in Zurich.

Photo: Peter Peitsch