THE OLD KING IN HIS EXILE / DER ALTE KÖNIG IN SEINEM EXIL
Translated by Stefan Tobler
How do you find your way home when nothing around you looks familiar? Arno Geiger’s father August does not recognize the house he built on his parents’ land. He talks to his grown-up children as if they were helpful strangers and gets lost in the village where he has lived for eighty years.
‘The Old King in his Exile’ is a personal account of dementia and a story of lost memories. At the start of the book Arno Geiger recounts how he and his siblings mistook the first signs of illness in their father for laziness or apathy. Annoyed by his inertia, they nagged him to work in the garden instead of spending all day in front of the TV. Looking back, Arno regrets their misdirected anger: ‘we were scolding the person instead of the disease.’ For the family, the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s supplies a welcome explanation, but it leaves their father in a world that has stopped making sense.
Arno Geiger does not play down the horror of dementia. He describes his father’s panic and his own despair at seeing him so helpless in the face of daily life. Sometimes his father is furious: after an argument with a carer, he locks himself in the bathroom and arms himself with a brush. Later he is ashamed and apologetic – but the carer resigns. Attempting to understand his father’s agitation, Arno likens dementia to perpetual homelessness or self-exile where even the home environment seems bewildering and strange. After a time, the family decides to work with his faulty memory rather than confronting him with a reality that is alien and unsettling. Instead of insisting they are already in his house, they offer to drive him back later; when he worries his mother will be waiting, they assure him she knows where he is.
There are happier times too. When their father is relaxed, he is courteous and cheerful, and Arno describes their moments of companionship with warmth and humour. Belatedly, he comes to understand his father better, and the book reconstructs his past life from old photographs and family stories: a peasant childhood in the Austrian Alps, conscription as a schoolboy, the horrors of a POW hospital, and a return to the village. The final pages contain shorter episodes: snippets of conversation between the two men, comments that surprise Arno with their unexpected wit, and reflections on forging new memories with a father who cannot retain them. This is an insightful, profoundly moving book.
And Other Stories, 2017, 214 pp.
About the Author
Arno Geiger grew up in the Austrian Alps. His grandparents were farmers; his father was also born in the village and married a teacher from the local school. He studied literature at university and published his debut novel in 1997. In October 2005 he was awarded the German Book Prize for ‘We Are Doing Fine’, which follows the story of three generations of a family in twentieth-century Vienna. His autobiographical ‘The Old King in his Exile’ was published in German in 2011. He talks about writing the book here.
Bookshelf / Bücherregal
The last hundred years have seen a boom in narratives about illness, connected not least with longer life spans and new possibilities for treatment and recovery. The Free University of Berlin even has a new pathographic research centre set up to examine the aesthetics and politics of illustrated stories about disease. Next year it will be organizing an exhibition of self-contained comics on the theme of illness: submissions are welcome here. The three books listed below are still waiting for an English-language publisher to translate them, but there are links to extracts in English.
‘Leben’ begins when the narrator returns home one night, opens the fridge, takes a few spoonfuls of apple puree and feels an odd sensation in his throat. He looks in the mirror, sees nothing unusual, then bends over the bath and spews blood. This is the story of a man who nearly loses his life, but who gains another. It is a fictionalized account of the author’s liver transplantation, his life with his old liver, the operation, his recovery, and his new life with a liver that once belonged to someone else. The title could be rendered as ‘life’ or ‘living’ and it chimes with the German word for ‘liver’: the book combines personal experience and cultural history with reflections on the strangeness and wonder of organ transplantation. Katy Derbyshire translates an extract here.
Du stirbst noch nicht (You’re Not Going to Die)
Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2009
Published in nine languages but still awaiting translation into English, Katrin Schmidt’s remarkable novel describes a woman rebuilding her life and her vocabulary after suffering a stroke. Confined to a hospital bed and unable to speak, Helene Weigand is forced to reassess her identity, her body and her life. Schmidt herself suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2002 and her novel finds the words to convey how it feels to lose – and then regain – the language with which we make sense of the world. John Reddick translates an extract here.
Arbeit und Struktur (Work and Structure)
This posthumously published book version of Wolfgang Herrndorf’s diary was started after the author was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It documents the final years of his life: brain operations, admissions to a psychiatric clinic, numerous appointments with doctors, seizures, memory gaps – but also periods of intense productivity. During this time Herrndorf finished his award-winning YA novel ‘Why We Took the Car’ and his postcolonial thriller ‘Sand’, but eventually his increasing language loss meant that he could no longer write, and the last entry of the diary consists of a single name. This is a powerful record of living day-to-day with a terminal diagnosis.
Text: Sally-Ann Spencer
Copyright: Goethe-Institut New Zealand, 2016