by Sabrina Thom
To launch the English translation of Arno Geiger’s Der Alte König in seinem Exil (2011) (The Old King in his Exile), a memoir on the author’s father who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, the Austrian Cultural Forum organised a reading with the author followed by a discussion with Rachel Thompson from UK Dementia. As Arno Geiger was staying in the Austrian Cultural Forum London ahead of his reading, I had the chance to talk to him and discuss his book, which has profoundly touched me and so many of our guests.
When I first met Arno Geiger he told me something that has remained with me ever since. It was early in the morning and I had just been reading his gripping memoir on a jam-packed London train on the way to work and I was still deeply touched by his honest account on what it means to love someone with dementia. I can’t remember his exact wording, only his clarity and tranquility when he told me that he started feeling joy in his life again as soon as he recognized the profundity of the situation and of the people involved. This mindset is probably applicable to many difficult situations but in case of Arno Geiger he was talking about his father and how Alzheimer’s has deeply changed their lives and their relationship to each other.
In Der Alte König in seinem Exil (The Old King in his Exile) he allows the reader to enter a sacred place, the family home and the place of his heart. He takes the reader on an intriguing journey through his father’s life exploring his shifting relationship to him as the illness makes his father slowly loose his basic skills. August Geiger was in his early 70s when the first signs of dementia started to emerge. These were initially either ignored or met with anger and frustration by his family and friends. In his book August is depicted as a simple man cherishing routine and a homely and modest lifestyle, never venturing out of his quiet birthplace unless necessary. It is unclear if he would have been more open to change if he was not forced to leave his home at the age of seventeen to fight in World War II but it is evident that this experience has left an indelible mark on his soul. As a Soviet prisoner of war he suffered from dysentery and while many of his fellow prisoners died, he managed to survive and made the long and arduous journey home.
Evoking a deep bitterness, Arno Geiger hints at the irony of the fact that a man who was so adamantly resistant to change gradually found himself in a situation where he was constantly faced with situations and people unfamiliar to him. In a way his trauma, which he was so unwilling to speak about, was reproduced in his illness on a regular basis. Dementia revealed what he tried to suppress. While the phrase “I want to go home” is haunting the narrative, Arno Geiger successfully provides a map assisting the reader to escape the labyrinth of guilt, frustration and confusion.
As a writer Arno Geiger’s first instinct is to make sense of his father’s words and behavior, even if this means expanding his notion of reality and letting go of his expectations and indoctrinated sense of propriety. “As my father can no longer cross the bridge into my world, I have to go over to his”, he writes and on numerous occasions he emphasizes the necessity of this attempt: “The only remaining place where we could be together was the world as he understood it”. While Arno was unable or perhaps sometimes even unwilling to bridge the growing distance between him and his father as a teenager, he manages to forge a connection during his illness, a connection more profound than it has ever been. He suggests that while people say that Alzheimer’s “cuts connections”, occasionally “it creates them.” The nursing home where August eventually has to live provides a space in which Arno finds depth and creativity in people who are often relegated to the margin of our achievement-oriented society. Distancing himself from the pressures and expectations of our modern world, he notices how a changed perspective can bring about the relief and joy he was longing for: “When our hopes and dreams were dashed, that’s when our lives began”
“How are you, Dad?”
“Well, actually, I’m fine. But ‘fine’ in quotation marks, because I’m in no position to judge”
When I spoke with Arno Geiger that morning, he also mentioned what I found to be the most powerful strategy to transcend his pain, guilt and frustration in his book. “Why”, he asks me, “why is it that when Thomas Bernhard writes about alienation and a deep sense of loneliness, it is considered great art but when my father expresses the same sentiments he is just sick?” I then realized that writing about the taboo subject of dementia on his own terms was such a powerful undertaking. By drawing parallels between his father’s words and the writing of renowned writers like Franz Kafka and Thomas Bernhard he infuses his father’s and ultimately also his life with depth and dignity. Illustrating the brilliancy of his father by interspersing the narrative with his father’s self-reflective and original utterances, he transcends his pain and feeling of guilt and brings dignity back into a life that he constantly affirms is worth living.
“When I now think about my past I no longer feel any pain”, he tells me another time when he is already about to leave to fly back to Austria. “Some people have read my book and told me that it has helped them bring joy and laughter back into their families. That is the real power of words” Literature forces us to adopt a different perspective and sometimes, as it is the case with Arno Geiger’s The Old King in his Exile this new perspective is actually healing.
Arno Geiger was born in 1968 in Wolfurt close to Bregenz and studied German studies, comparative literature and ancient history in Vienna and Innsbruck. His novel We Are Doing Fine (Es Geht Uns Gut) was awarded the Deutsche Buchpreis in 2005.