I recently interviewed author Jon Steele about his debut novel, The Watchers. It’s a smart, literary thriller with a supernatural twist. Set in Lausanne, Switzerland, the story centers on Marc Rochat, the bell ringer of the cathedral in Lausanne who is drawn in to a series of murders in the city. I asked Steele about his experience of visiting the real-life cathedral for the first time, when he came in contact with the bell ringer.
Steele went on to write hundreds of words on this haunting meeting, a story that I’ve excerpted here. Below, you can read about the man who rings the bells marking the time in Lausanne–and how he inspired an exciting new trilogy.
For more on The Watchers and Jon Steele–who is also an award-winning cameraman and has written a memoir about working in combat zones–read this Q&A on BookPage.com.
The bell ringer of Lausanne
guest post by Jon Steele
First time I saw the cathedral. Spring of 2001. I was a news cameraman/editor for ITN [Independent Television News]. I’d been working the Intifada on the West Bank and Gaza for six straight months. I was pretty well shot. I went to Lausanne for R&R, stayed at the Lausanne Palace. I didn’t leave the hotel, but I saw the cathedral from my room. It didn’t look like much. More like a grey lump of falling-down rock than a cathedral.
Wasn’t till a couple years later, after I quit TV news. Long story. I was in Baghdad the day the war started. I’d been living there four months. I decided journalism had lost its mind. Tens of thousands of innocent people were about to die. This war was bullshit, and TV was helping Bush and Blair sell it. I wanted no part of it. After 20-some years of covering the sharper end of news, I put my camera on the ground and quit. I wanted no part of this one. I drove out of Iraq as American bombs fell.
I went to the south of France, hid out in a small village for a year. No TV, no radio, no phone. I took long walks in quiet places and wondered, “OK, now what do I do?”
I wrote a novel called Saddamistan: A Story of Love and War. It was my take on what went down in Baghdad leading up to the war. (It’s still in my desk drawer.) After a year of that, I passed through Lausanne again, checked back into the Lausanne Palace.
One night, me and a mate had dinner on the town. Driving back to the hotel, he pointed to the cathedral. There was a light moving around the belfry. My mate told me it was le guet, the guy who spent his nights in the belfry and called the hour over Lausanne. Once upon a time, all cathedrals had such a man in the belfry, to watch for fires and invaders. One by one they disappeared, except for Lausanne. There’s been a man in the belfry, circling the tower with a lantern and calling the hour, from the day the cathedral was consecrated in the 13th century.
I ended up at the foot of the belfry tower, that very night, bottle of wine in hand. Here’s how it works. You go to the cathedral, stand there and call up, “Renato!” Then this shadow of a figure appears at the railings. He lowers down a key on a 300-foot piece of string. You take the key, Renato pulls up the string. You unlock the tower door, go in, lock the door behind you. You wind your way up the stone steps. It’s dark, the air is close. Then you feel the fresh, night air drifting down, you round the steps one more time and you’re standing on the lower balcony of the belfry. Then this little guy in a black floppy hat, carrying a lantern, steps from the shadows of Clémance (the execution bell) . . . and he says, “Hello, it’s only me.”
That’s how I met Renato Haüsler, le guet de la cathedrale de Lausanne. He’s got a funny shaped room between the bells; it looks like something out of a Tim Burton film. It’s where Renato sleeps. There’s a small bed, a small desk. The room is lit with candles. Renato has candles on the brain. He gave me a tour of the belfry. I met all the bells. The biggest is Marie-Madeleine. She rings the hour. There are five more bells in the upper belfry. Renato took us up to say hello. Along the way he told me about the thousand-year-old timbers of the carpentry, the gigantic tinker toy arrangement of ancient timbers from the primeval forests of Lausanne that house the bells. We went back to his room, had a glass and he told me about his vision. He wanted to light the nave of the cathedral with thousands of candles so people could see the place for what it was.
There was a winching sound and the loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life exploded through the belfry. It was Marie-Madeleine; she was calling the hour. The entire belfry trembled. Renato re-lit the candle in his lantern. Told me to follow him. He walked to the east balcony, waited for Marie’s voice to fade. He held his lantern into the night and called, “C’est le guet! Il a sonne douze, il a sonne douze!” (“This is the watcher! It is 12 o’clock, it is 12 o’clock!”) He did the same to the north, west and south. And facing south, there was Lake Geneva, the lights of Évian on the far shore, the shadows of the Alps rising to the stars.
The wheels in my head starting spinning.
Last of his kind lives in a bell tower in a grey falling-down lump of a cathedral. He’s strange, he wears a black floppy hat, carries a lantern . . . he’s got candles on the brain.
There was a story. I just had to find it.
Thank you, Jon! Readers: Will you check out The Watchers? It’s on sale this week. Read more about it on BookPage.com.