John Berger, art critic and painter, found a home in the Swiss Alps. The Londoner wrote Into Their Labours trilogy, which would describe the rural life in Switzerland. Images of rich inhabitants come to mind, such as the French tennis players who don't want to pay a hefty income tax. The winter season turns this small European nation into a playground for the rich. (Crans-Montana and Lenzerheide are popular resorts, which are among the regular venues of the annual Alpine Skiing World Cup.) And St. Moritz hosted the 1948 Winter Olympics. Austerity forced Switzerland (and other European nations) to think twice before hosting this quadrennial event. But Berger wasn't interested in any of it.
The Englishman saw generations of farmers who were bound to the land. It was a hard life, uneventful in most days. But it was a rewarding existence. Anyone who would doubt it must be reminded of the Alps. A tourist has only a photograph to cherish it, even brag it to the netizens through social media. A farmer will see the snow-capped peaks everyday. It hardly uplifts them during those lonely moments.
The year of a thousand moles
"The Accordion Player" depicted a clash of tradition and modernization. Felix, a middle-aged farmer, was a bachelor. It was unheard in the highlands especially his father's generation and his grandfather's. In fact, Felix's mother tried her darn best to look for a suitable wife for his son. Alas, most of the daughters of farmers would go to the big cities and look for a husband. Women have more opportunities for a better life. What about the likes of Felix?
"With the new machines he did not have to work harder than in the first half of his life, the difference now was that he was finally alone."
The moles, which could cause damage to harvest, would be the only thing that keep Felix occupied. As a matter of fact, the other short stories in "Once in Europa" were young ones (and immigrants) who must work hard during most of the day. It was the only way to keep them from crying during those vulnerable moments. In the case of married couples, it could be a long-distance relationship. (It would be near impossible to find a WiFi in high altitude.) Berger wrote his tales in short sentences, each hardly conveying a message. But this could be how a farmer would converse to his colleague (or a visitor). There was no time for chitchat. It could be akin to silence. The effects might be a life changer.
It's in these moments of solitude when Berger's descriptions would stir one's emotion. A panorama of the majestic Alps and the grassy slopes would inspire anyone, but it will remind the farmer of many things. He's bound to this land until his last breath. It's a tradition that defines the highland. They're not assured of a rosy life, but there are some things worse than loneliness. Whether modernization is a blessing or a curse is up to them. As for the readers, they won't look at the snow-capped mountains the same way again. Ever.