What I learned while in Geneva
Why did he have to choose no other city but Geneva? Has Paulo Coelho, who has sold more than 165 million copies in 80 languages in 168 countries worldwide, purchased a vacation house in the affluent neighborhood near Lake Geneva? His latest novel, “Adultery,” is set there.
From the airplane, the city was covered in morning mist. Surrounded by the peaks of the Alps, fog rose from the placid lake, and Geneva’s historical structures were just visible. It was the perfect harmony of nature and artifice. If Coelho decided to set his new novel there after exploring the world, I cannot help but pay my respects to his aesthetic insight. Coelho describes Geneva in the eye of Linda, the protagonist of the novel:
“The appalling bad taste, the absence of huge glass-and-steel towers, the lack of highways, the tree roots that push through the concrete sidewalks and trip you up, the public parks with their mysterious little wooden fences overgrown with weeds because ‘That’s what nature is like.’ In short, a city that is different from others that have been modernized and lost their charms.”
Linda is a journalist at a newspaper “that can be found in almost all the news kiosks in Geneva.” But she says that “being a journalist in Geneva, with its 195,000 inhabitants, is the most boring job in the world.”
The day I arrived in Geneva, the headline of Tribune de Geneve was “Federal Government in Bern Pressured to Resolve Gender Wage Gap.”
In the novel, Coelho’s example was “Newly Restored Geneve Returns to the Lake Looking More Beautiful Than Ever.” That much is the difference between the novel and the reality.
Linda grows tied of her perfect life and starts an extramarital affair. When the comfortable, “white bread world” makes her not just bored but depressed, she chooses an adventure and intentionally has an affair with her old boyfriend - a politician.
It was still early in the morning, but there were prostitutes looking for customers at the Gare Cornavin near Lake Geneva. I also spotted some young men casting glances at me. Prostitution is legal in Geneva, probably strategic tolerance of the city authority for the human side of a boring city. But it is merely a section of Geneva on the surface.
Near my hotel, I spotted a military bulletin board that has a detailed drill schedule for each division in 2015. The infantry exercise is for 18 days starting Apr. 7, and the artillery division is scheduled for a 17-day drill from Apr. 21 on. In Switzerland, men over 18 must participate in a 21-week entry training and six mobilization exercises until age 34. After completing all six sessions, they have to participate in annual gunnery exercises for 30 years. There was a notice for a makeup test for those who failed to participate in this year’s firing drill. Failing to participate in the session results in a fine of 1,000 Swiss francs ($1,053), or a maximum 10 days detention.
Participants are to bring their own firearms to the designated shooting range and complete practice on targets 300 meters away. They are given two chances but must pay for the cost of bullets in the second round. Those who fail the test must try out until they pass. The entire country is fortified underneath beautiful nature. All men are always ready to take up a gun and fight. The status of a permanently neutral country was attained because Switzerland has the power to protect itself.
On Friday, which was United Nations Day, the Geneva Peace Conference was held at the United Nations Office. The roles of religion, media and education for peace were discussed. Representatives from civil groups complained that they are not sure whether the media is a promoter of peace or a troublemaker. In the age of social media, participants expressed great interest and concern about the role and limitation of the media. While tolerance and respect are necessary for peace, Geneva, the city of peace, reminds us that thorough preparation is also important.
I looked around to see if there’s anyone like Linda among the journalists attending the conference. But after all, a novel is only fiction. However, I found something else. On the wall of an elementary school at Place de la Navigation, it was written, “If you want to make friends, you should respect them. Respecting someone is accepting the person even if you don’t like him.”
Geneva is indeed a fitting backdrop for Coelho’s novel.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 28, Page 31
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok