Take a walk with an old man

2014-04-09 12.57.06

Most English speakers will go through life without ever reading a Swiss novel. It’s not surprising. There are so many countries, so many languages – and not enough of their literary treasures are scooped up in the English translation net. But the ones that make it are well worth opening, if only to look at the world through a different lens.

You might find something beautiful, something completely different to anything you’ve ever read before, something like Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon.

I just finished the book on the train on the way home this evening. I also read it while sitting in a department store restaurant in Bern at lunchtime, and in between flipping pancakes for breakfast on Sunday.

The Zbinden of the title is Lukas Zbinden, a frail elderly widower living in a retirement home who loves to talk and loves to go for walks. His progress is his slow journey from his room on the third floor down to the ground floor entrance, on the arm of a carer. The bulk of novel is narrated in his voice during this arduous trek. I can’t imagine how Simon pitched the book but within the confines of this device, he manages to skilfully and movingly present a life story, a love story and a comedy of manners.

No doubt you’ll soon take a shine to them all: the respectable ladies and eccentric gentlemen, the talkative widows and taciturn bachelors, the seasoned walking-frame users, shuffling stay-at-homes with faces like dried meat. The confused ones, whose thoughts roll around like peas on a plate. Those on medication with a cocktail in their veins of which blood’s just a minor ingredient. Veteran engineers, tradesmen and -women, office workers, housewives, civil servants, army personnel, fire extinguisher inspectors, bus drivers, over-achievers, service workers, stationary shop staff.

Zbinden’s Progress is a slim volume but we get to know a lot of Lukas’ fellow residents and their foibles. But most of all the old man likes to wax eloquent about walking, and he puts a lot of energy into trying to convert others to this noble calling.

Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is: acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away. Speaking to the bees though you’re already a bit too old for that. Not being especially rushed on a street that’s like an oven in the afternoon sun. Missing the tram. … Going at your own pace. Going for a walk is: saying hello to more people than you know. Losing Frau Dürig amid the turmoil of the Christmas market. Sensing a storm brewing, from a distance.

The endearing thing about Lukas Zbinden is that he knows how ridiculous he sounds. A former teacher, he realises he is a pedant but he is never pompous. This is probably because he was married to Emilie, a thoroughly practical woman who combined rock solid self-belief with exceptional generosity of spirit. We hear a lot about his love for Emilie and relive the defining moments of their marriage.

What I love about Zbinden’s Progress is that the main character both encapsulates and subverts the Swiss stereotype. On the surface he has led such a conventional life – army recruit, schoolteacher, married father-of-one, enthusiastic walker – but at heart he’s a revolutionary. I’ll keep an eye out for him on my walks from now on.

Yes, this book will stay with me. Its message of stopping to smell the roses is one we need to be reminded of more than ever in the communication whirlwind modern society has become.

And I really like what he says about competition, “the lion tamer, constantly cracking his whip and rushing people”.

Competition takes us up a very high mountain, from which you can see far. It opens the curtains and we can see all the riches of the world and all its splendour. Competition says to us: I’ll give you all of that if you are industrious enough and compete well.

Zbinden’s Progress (Spaziergänger Zbinden) was translated by Donal McLaughlin, a prolific translator of contemporary Swiss fiction. I mentioned before that I met McLaughlin in Bern recently when he was over from Glasgow for a reading from another of his translations Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz. I’ll be able to link to a podcast discussion with McLaughlin and Lenz next week when it is published on swissinfo.ch.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your recommendations. What book, translated or not, has awakened strong feelings in you?

9 thoughts on “Take a walk with an old man

  1. Looking on the shelf where I leave books I’ve recently finished, the novel that jumped out at me was The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s a novel, but it’s very much based on the facts of Hadley Richardson’s marriage to Ernest Hemingway. I was deeply touched by her struggle to keep hold of her sense of self in a marriage where she was the junior partner.

  2. I enjoyed The Paris Wife, too and when I finished it, I really disliked Hemmingway! But my best find this year has been A Blessed Child by Linn Ullmann about 3 sisters returning to their childhood holiday home to see their elderly father. The dialogue is fantastic!
    Last year’s gem was The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman about a boat washed up on the shore of an island – with a dead man and a baby in it leading to a devastating decision by the childless couple who finds them. I read the whole novel without really knowing whom I felt for more as it evoked empathy for everyone despite their very different perspectives.

    1. Any book about three sisters grabs my attention! Sounds really good. Ages ago I read a novel about a baby washed up on one of the Aran Islands after a plane crash on the night a woman lost her baby in childbirth. It’s a very strong starting point. Look forward to reading these three. Thanks Marius!

  3. Sounds lovely novel, Clare. I always admire a writer who can weave an interesting story out of the small details of a restricted life. And well done for bringing Swiss novels to our attention – don’t think I’ve ever read one, but this is tempting.

  4. I loved that line Ben mentioned too! This novel reminded me of ‘Water for Elephants’ by Sarah Gruen which also starts in a retirement home, is narrated by an elderly man with much humour and pathos. Haven’t got past the sample on my Kindle yet though. I started reading Norwegian fiction in translation last year – I love Per Pettersen and was besotted by Roy Jacobsen’s ‘Wonder Child’. Thank you for this recommendation – a lovely review to whet the appetite. 🙂

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