Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon and translated by Donal McLaughlin (And Other Stories, 2012) has been on my radar as something I wanted to read for a long time. Then I won an e-book of it from the nice people at New Books in German – to whom, thank you very much! – which sat in my email account for a long time. At intervals I thought, oh yes, I’ll read that now, only to discover that it was still on the computer and not on the e-reader… But finally I managed to get my technological act together and get down to reading it.
About the book:
Lukas Zbinden leans on the arm of Kâzim, as they walk slowly down the stairway towards the door of his old people’s home. Step by step, the irrepressible Lukas recounts the life he shared with his wife Emilie and his son. She loved to walk in the countryside; he loved towns and meeting strangers. Different in so many ways, what was the secret of their life-long love? And why is it now so hard for him to talk to his son?
Gradually we get to know a man with a twinkle in his eye and learn the captivating story of this man, his late wife, their son and the many people he has met along the way. Zbinden’s Progress is heart-rending, heart-warming and hilarious.
I found this a very enjoyable read and really appreciated the way the character of Zbinden builds up. It’s yet another story told as a monologue – why are they so much a theme in translation, I wonder? – as the old man expounds on his life and his theories of walking, all the while breaking off to chat to the other residents and staff, and to fill Kâzim in on their back stories. It was quite moving to reflect on this 80-year-old man, still a walker at heart, having to lean on the arm of a young carer just to make it down the stairs, and indeed for that progress to be slow enough to make time for all this talking.
Zbinden is not just a walker, of course. He’s a talker – there’s no doubt of that – and I had every sympathy with his wife’s occasional outbursts when he’d gone on too long as I imagined living with this flood of words for so many years. But it is also clear that he is still deeply in love with Emilie and struggling to cope with her death. He is a worrier and frets about his relationship with his son – something else I could relate to. He is a teacher, and one who longs to share his passions with everyone around him. He is a charmer too – this book is much lighter in tone than a lot of things I’ve read in translation recently, and came as a welcome relief in that regard.
Zbinden addresses the other residents by name – Herr Ziegler, Frau Grundbacher – helping to maintain the Swiss feel of the story, and there are some lovely descriptions of the countryside he’s walked through (despite preferring the towns).
I did wonder at one point whether the translator had fallen for a classic German-English false friend:
And indeed: four weeks after I moved in to the Home, the manageress chased a group of slightly confused souls out into the courtyard, where they looked around, irritated. (p. 112-113)
It seems to me that the “perplexed” meaning of “irritiert” is more likely here than “irritated”. But that’s a minor niggle and perhaps it wasn’t even “irritiert” in the first place – I don’t have the German text on hand to check. In general, though, Donal McLaughlin has created a voice for Lukas Zbinden that conveys all the characteristics I outlined above and makes you feel that this rather garrulous old man is somebody worth listening to.