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Dropping the Veil

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 3, March/April 2013
pp. 26-27 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Zbinden’s Progress by the Swiss writer Christoph Simon is a novel in which almost nothing out of the ordinary happens. A retired schoolteacher named Lukas Zbinden, alone and growing old in a nursing home, reflects on his life. He recalls with great affection his deceased wife Emile, whom he has outlived by many years, and to whom he was faithful with seemingly little struggle or temptation. He worries about his son Markus, now a successful biochemist, whose own personal life seems faultless but whose relationship to his father is tepid at best. He opines—frequently and with great insistence—that the solution for the world’s unhappiness is to go for very long walks as often as possible. In fact, the entire 172 page novel takes the form of a monologue, delivered by Zbinden, to the young Kâzim, the attendant helping him down the staircase and out of doors. This verbal stream-of-consciousness moves back and forth from decades-old memories to present-day remarks directed at the various characters Zbinden encounters and gossips about over the course of his walk.

In German tradition, there is the Wanderjahre, in which a young craftsman, having completed his apprenticeship, would roam about from place to place, acquiring experience before eventually becoming a recognized guild-master who could put down roots and open his own trade shop. Likewise, in the literary tradition encapsulated in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), the ostensible Christian, burdened by his own self-knowledge, leaves his family behind to embark on a treacherous journey before finally setting foot in the Celestial City. Having found salvation, his family later follows him there.

This novel combines both traditions. As Zbinden recalls the experiences and mistakes of his youth, he builds from these memories the narrative of his own salvation—if by “salvation” we mean the overcoming of the one’s self; in particular, one’s flaws and shortsightedness.

As a short novel formed from the ramblings of an elderly man, Zbinden’s Progress is story told without very little dramatic structure in the traditional sense. There are essentially two modes to the narrative voice. First, there is the “present day” mode, in which Zbinden is speaking to Kâzim—a stand-in for the reader—as they make their way through the nursing home, or down the street, or wherever it is they happen to be walking. The only clues the reader has as to Zbinden’s external reality are his asides to fellow residents in the nursing home as they pass, and his occasional direct address to Kâzim to make sure he is listening. If there is a conversation or an exchange, we only hear Zbinden’s responses. It is a sort of literary equivalent of echolocation. These passages approach latter-day Beckett in their disjointed whimsicality.

The second mode, which predominates, is that of Zbinden recollecting various key moments over the course of his life. This takes a more traditional narrative form, though there is a deliberate absence of dramatic technique employed within them. Even the occasional explosions of marital discord or familial conflict end, for the most part, in normalcy rather than epiphany or catharsis.

Simon, through his narrator’s voice, clearly intends to evoke the even rhythms of everyday life and conversation rather than the rising and falling tensions of drama. Luckily, the result is only rarely soporific. The reader’s interest is held because the novel begs for the kind of introspection one would normally give to a close friend or acquaintance. The novel’s success results from its subtlety—it rewards a reader who, after finishing the first read, returns to certain passages to linger on them. In other words, the ideal reader embarks on his own aimless walk though Zbinden’s winding narrative.

Zbinden’s approach to life is revealed in a geography lesson he gives to his students: “‘What is the Earth?’ ‘A sphere’ was the correct answer. Therein lay all my wisdom. Countless paths lead from person to person.” The observation is true, of course, but perhaps costly for what it overlooks, namely that such paths vary widely in length and difficulty. Zbinden’s relentless enthusiasm...

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