A Deeply Moving Portrait of a Father’s Final Years
The Old King in His Exile by Arno Geiger is one of the most exciting offerings published this year by literature in English translation specialists And Other Stories. It marks a departure from their usual fare of literary fiction, as it is Geiger’s memoir of his experiences caring for his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, a work of literary nonfiction if you will. Expertly and sensitively translated by And Other Stories founder Stefan Tobler, the book moves through the decades of August Geiger’s life, from his birth in the Austrian Alps into a farming, schnapps-making family in 1926, to his conscription into the army as a “schoolboy soldier” during World War II, an experience that left an indelible but unspoken mark upon him, right up to his later years, spent in the grips of dementia.
First published in German in 2011, this English translation from And Other Stories, incidentally the 28th language in which The Old King in His Exile has been released, is a testament to the publisher’s pledge to release “mind-blowing” and “shamelessly literary” works that are yet to be discovered by an Anglophone audience. Geiger is a much-celebrated writer in Germanophone circles, particularly in his native Austria. His debut novel was published in 1997 and he went on to be the first recipient of the prestigious Deutscher Buchpreis (German Book Prize) in 2005 for Es Geht Uns Gut (We Are Doing Fine).
The Old King in His Exile remains a deeply personal work, chronicling the most intimate of struggles within Geiger’s own family, whilst also dealing with universal themes such as the inevitability of ageing and the ethical debate surrounding euthanasia. Geiger only briefly touches upon the latter issue, which is a particularly thorny one, asserting that despite his father’s deteriorating mental state, he still has a decent quality of life, whatever the phrase “quality of life” means. Can such an abstract concept ever really be quantified? Geiger seems to think not and many readers will be inclined to agree. August Geiger is replete with pithy statements, expressing himself in more lucid moments in a wise, almost poetic manner, such as when his son asks him how he is and he responds using the rather biblical adage: “No wonders but signs,” which refers to the end of days. Later, Geiger observes that: “breath-taking sentences are becoming rarer and rarer,” as the disease tightens its grip upon August.
Another of Geiger’s unhappy realisations is that his father has been something of a difficult man to get to know. He belongs to a generation that did not speak often of the horrors it endured, particularly during the Second World War. Geiger develops a renewed fascination with a photograph of his father as a teenager, emaciated and glassy-eyed, having returned from the front. His father used to keep the photograph in his wallet but, as often happens with Alzheimer’s disease sufferers, it has been misplaced. Arno berates himself for not making a copy of it, though a relative later comes forward with a copy, to Arno’s great relief.
he is unable to recognize his own home, despite having built it with his own hands
Geiger also berates himself too for not making more of an effort to get to know his father during his younger years. They were not particularly close when Geiger was a teenager, something which he now regrets a great deal. Their personalities seemed far removed, Arno wanted to write and to travel, whereas August was content to stay in Wolfurt, his tiny village close to Bregenz. Arno speculates that his father’s home meant so much to him due to a sort of separation anxiety that was no doubt a hangover from his time as a young soldier, when his relief to have returned home was so great that he vowed never to leave it again. This homesickness returns with even greater intensity once August becomes ill. He ultimately gets to a point where he is unable to recognize his own home, despite having built it with his own hands. He can recall his own address but is unconvinced by the door number and street signs that match it, coming instead to the conclusion that they are part of some great ruse. Nothing seems quite right, despite the familiar furniture and environs. Nor does August feel at ease in his childhood home a mere stone’s throw away, where he grew up with multiple siblings tending the land through hard graft, blood, sweat and tears.
This is not just a saga of ongoing ill-health, family sacrifices and carers on rotation, it speaks softly and profoundly of a transitional period, one which we will all face, as we approach death. Geiger’s writing is suffused with a sense of humility and respect for his father, despite his own admission that in his early adulthood, he came to think of his father as something of a “half-wit.” The honesty of such comments is indicative of the imperfect nature of many family relationships and Geiger’s decision to disclose them is admirable. In a certain sense, Geiger’s experience of caring for his father brought a certain sense of healing between the pair, who had previously struggled to understand one another. Geiger’s evolving relationship with his father throughout The Old King in His Exile is a testament to the fact that people can grow closer to one another even in such trying circumstances as years marred by a degenerative disease. It didn’t matter if August forgot his son’s actions or loving words, Arno would remember them. Perhaps just as importantly, he could keep doing them on his frequent trips back to Wolfurt from Vienna.
The Old King in His Exile is a quietly haunting read which will stay with readers, particularly those who have witnessed dementia up close in their loved ones, particularly in a time in which it affects an estimated 850,000 people in the UK alone. It is unsurprising that the book has become an international bestseller as it is a seminal, deeply moving work that will no doubt inspire other writers to delve into what it means to grow old, especially in the grips of the unfathomable disease that is dementia.
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