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Old Man and the Bench (Swiss Literature) by…
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Old Man and the Bench (Swiss Literature) (1993)

by Urs Allemann

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The Swiss writer Urs Allemann is (in)famous mainly for his bracingly-titled 1992 novel Babyfucker (opening line: ‘I fuck babies’), which, by those who could get past the provocation, was cautiously welcomed as a mostly-successful piece of experimental writing in the internal-monologic, word-diarrhoeal tradition of Samuel Beckett. I had come across the book before but felt little desire to read it, dismissing it as shock art; now, having read The Old Man and the Bench, I find I was much too hasty. Allemann is hardly going for page-turning enjoyment, but his themes and his efforts to push prose style seem to me to be absolutely genuine.

The book immerses you in the mind of an old man sitting on – you guessed it – a bench. It's not entirely clear why he's there; from scattered comments and throwaway remarks, we infer that he may be a retired proofreader who has been contracted to write his memoirs, with the deadline looming in five months' time. But memories, for our more-or-less nameless narrator, are either not welcome or not easy to come by. Instead there is just the endless verbal spew of his thoughts – relayed in run-on sentences, light in punctuation – which he can't shut off.

He only has language he says. Not true. Language has him. Hates him.

In lieu of marketable childhood anecdotes, the old man seems able to come up with only an unending string of banal observations mingled with absurdist flights of fancy. He gets distracted, he tells himself stories, he is sidetracked by unexpectedly Dadaist thought experiments. Some of these ramblings are disturbing, some are baffling, many are blackly funny, all of them are completely bonkers. Take, for example, the story of

the glass tennis match. Player A’s serve. Player A throws the ball up prepares to strike hits it. The glass shatters. Advantage player B. Service change. Player B throws the ball up prepares to strike hits it. The glass shatters. Deuce. Service change. New rackets please. Player A throws the ball up prepares to strike hits it. The glass shatters. The game goes back and forth a draw. After a few hours night falls. It doesn’t have to be light out for the glass to shatter. Maybe already that night but definitely by the next day both players are wading knee deep in shards of glass. What happens with the wood cleared away by the wardens doesn’t matter. Strung with new glass it can be used again. Maybe already the next day but definitely by the following night both players bleed to death. Whoever bleeds to death last wins.

As in Beckett, the internal monologue carries a sense of subterranean desperation. He can't stop thinking; he can't get away from himself. This discomfort is what motivates the formal games that characterise the book, especially in its second half – where, for instance, there is a long passage consisting exclusively of three-word sentences. (This is a lot easier in German than in English….) If, at times, the experimental flourishes irritate some readers, any objections are anticipated by the old man himself, who is sick to death of his own thought process.

There's no shit too pretentious for that degenerate childish brain to shamelessly crap it out into the blabber potty.

Intriguingly, there are hints of a childhood that do come through in places – as well as scattered, confused memories that indicate the old man may have, or have had, a family of his own somewhere or at some time. Now, at any rate, there is only himself; his bench; and the language that he can't seem to do anything with.

Patrick Greaney's translation copes with the challenging material well; the only question mark I had was the decision to translate quasseln and its derivatives with ‘twaddle’ – I think ‘waffling’ or ‘blathering’ might have been better. It's a crucial piece of vocabulary to the book (the German original is subtitled not ‘A Novel’, but Ein Fünfmonatsgequassel). But certainly a particular voice, and a particular tone, come across very strongly – the record of a fading mind with nowhere to go, and another work in that European tradition that tries to record what happens when language turns inward, despairing, and starts to eat itself. ( )
1 vote Widsith | May 22, 2015 |
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