by Benjamin Morris
The story could not be simpler: Lukas Zbinden, an 87-year-old former schoolteacher who lives in a nursing home in Switzerland, decides one morning to go for a walk. He is accompanied by his carer, Kâzim, a young Turkish man whose chief role, apart from guiding his charge down through ninety-four steps and three flights of stairs, is listening to him speak. No small feat for a character who is essentially invisible, rendered into being in this lovely, quiet new novel, Simon’s fourth, only through Zbinden’s stream-of-consciousness monologue. No small feat for the novelist, either: brought from German into English in Donal McLaughlin’s seamless translation, one of Zbinden’s Progress’ achievements is populating an entire building through the perspective of one inhabitant, and doing so in a manner that is both convincing and entertaining in one stroke.
As the novel blossoms, it becomes clear that Kâzim may bear Zbinden physically, but someone else bears him emotionally and spiritually: his late wife Emilie, the love of his life and the focal point of the majority of his attention. Zbinden’s stories about her – their meeting, their courtship and marriage, the family they raised, their conflicts and trials, her passing – provide the skeletal structure that holds the book together, and are told with a warmth and clarity that steers towards sentiment, rather than sentimentality. He recalls her as keen, vital, ever-tilted towards beauty and delight, and, despite their differences – he is a town walker, while she is a country walker, a point of charming contention – freely admits that “Had we not married, I’d have chased her all my life.” Even in her absence Zbinden’s devotion is absolute; the novel is bookended by brief, and moving, private conversations.
Though these three characters are the primary figures, others fall into step. The home where Zbinden lives is full not just with nurses and staff, but with alcoholics, misanthropes, kleptomaniacs, former film-star divas, and even golden-age Lotharios, all of whom contribute to his progress, if only as an obstacle to be navigated or even a font of gossip. (Simon’s skill as a novelist is here well on display, in his rendering one-sided conversations: with only minor effort, it is almost always possible to make out what Zbinden’s interlocutors are saying.) But the locus of attention remains the walk: not just the present walk with Kâzim, but all walks, from walks past to walks future to the history and theory of walks. An encyclopaedic autodidact of the subject, Zbinden offers walks as a cure for jadedness and malaise, cites them as the catalyst for famous discoveries and compositions, describes in detail their opportunities and serendipities, and, in some of his most inspired passages, offers minute taxonomies of the different paths and directions and passages one might take. “Going for a walk is,” he observes, “always wishing for a little more than a walk can offer, but never wishing it so much that you get discouraged. A walk can cure a troubled soul and a broken heart. The door’s open: step out and be blessed.”
This is not to say that, as on any walk, there are not a few stumbles along the way. An undercurrent of Zbinden’s monologue is the latent tension he shares with a son with whom he has difficulty communicating, a conflict that is, in truth, given more weight than it may merit. If one of the cruxes of the novel is the presence of silences between family members, then little new news about the condition is found here. Families that share every feeling, opinion, experience, and desire freely and openly are as rare as Tasmanian tigers; were one to exist, would not novelists and scientists alike race across the world to study it? Furthermore, a handful of Zbinden’s encounters with other residents of the home feel slightly forced, almost too staged and courteous for their own good: portions of adipose tissue that needlessly fatten an otherwise lean narrative.
But these are minor concerns, and in the main, Zbinden’s Progress is a delight: a warm, wise, and compassionate book, as attuned to the complexities and mysteries of life as it is to the simple, pleasing colours of its beloved walking-frames. It is also surprisingly funny: the scene of Lukas and Emilie’s wedding night is an utter joy, one readers will have to discover for themselves, as is the account of a day when, after an marital spat, he refuses to speak not just to her but to anyone at all – leading to confusion, terror, pandemonium, and finally anarchy not on the part of his spouse but on the part of his schoolchildren. By the end of it, he recalls, the classroom has devolved to the point where “each [student] questions the other’s mental abilities, casts a slur on the legitimacy of the other’s birth, and there’s a barrage of foul expressions, highlighting activities ranging from incest to intercourse with barn animals.” One only wishes he had provided details.
Theories of narratology claim various numbers of core plots in fiction, including the basic dichotomy of ‘stranger comes to town’ or ‘hero leaves home.’ On the basis of Simon’s novel, this formula may be reducible to just one: someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, goes for a walk. A scene near the end of the book illustrates this beautifully. Not long after he has moved into the home, Zbinden gives a lecture to his fellow residents about the philosophy, ideology, and merits of walking – a lecture which, after he begins, half his audience immediately gets up and leaves. (Sympathetic to the end, he notes that “Walking means: going for a walk. Not, listening to lectures about walking. As the speaker, I feel like someone standing in front of a fountain, selling water.”) But it is their loss. With such an amiable companion, the choice would understandably be difficult: stay and listen to the rest of the lecture, or get up and put the theory to practice? How fortunate it is that readers in this world don’t have to choose.
Christoph Simon: Zbinden’s Progress
Translated by Donal McLaughlin
& Other Stories, Edinburgh 2012.
Paperback, 270 pages, GBP 10.00
A native of Mississippi, Benjamin Morris a writer and researcher, and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. His website is at benjaminalanmorris.com .
The reviewer would like to thank & Other Stories Publishing and the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
(c) 2012, The Berlin Review of Books.