Picks and Pans Review: La Place De La Concorde Suisse

updated 06/18/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John McPhee

Since his previous books have examined such subjects as oranges, canoes, blimps, Alaska and American geology, it's hardly surprising that this one is about another unlikely subject: the Swiss Army. Switzerland has been neutral since 1515, McPhee writes, but "beneath the long neutrality, there lies what the Swiss describe as 'an aptitude for war.' It appears to be an appetite as well—sublimated and under close control." The book—its title is the name of the confluence of certain Swiss glaciers—seems mostly praise of Switzerland's zealous preoccupation with self-defense. The country is full of weapons caches, secret airstrips, explosive charges planted on roads and bridges, bomb shelters and men who train constantly as part of a civilian army of 650,000. Someone in the Pentagon could read this as a treatise in favor of increasing the Defense Department budget, but that hardly seems the point. McPhee has made observation into an art, and this is a place to pursue it. His style can be annoying. Sometimes his Swiss soldiers' remarks appear in French, at other times, willy-nilly, in English. McPhee is not above an arch joke either. In one section, a nervous corporal keeps telling an officer, "Compris. Compris." ("Understood. Understood.") McPhee ends that chapter with a silly joke, "Service compris"—restaurantese for "tip included." And in discussing American influences, he gratuitously refers to the "ocean-swell breasts" of a young woman wearing a Harvard sweatshirt. All that and his dilettantism aside, McPhee marvelously communicates his enthusiasm about his subjects. He manages, too, to make clear how everything fits into a larger whole of which we're all part. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $12.95)

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