Book Review - Zbinden's Progress

The collaborative publishing ethos of And Other Stories has certainly paid off. Juan Villalobos's Down the Rabbit Hole was shortlisted for the Guardian's First Book Award, and Deborah Levy's Swimming Home has now reached the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize. This tender, restrained celebration of life's simple pleasures by the Swiss author Christoph Simon, beautifully translated by Donal McLaughlin, adds one more string to its bow.

As an elderly widower makes slow progress down the stairs of his retirement home, he tells his Turkish carer, Kâzim, the story of his life. Zbinden extols the virtues of walking as an antidote to "jadedness". Throughout his career as a teacher, he would lecture his pupils on the subject, and at the home he tries to rouse his fellow residents from their lethargy with "a group talk".

Although Zbinden's career and marriage were resolutely ordinary, we get the sense of a life intensely lived and loved. Zbinden would always stop to speak to strangers, observe the play of sunlight or ruminate on a problem. As he points out to Kâzim: "There are a great many examples of scientists, musicians and poets finding surprising solutions for their problems while out for a walk."

Zbinden's reflections are both absurd and poignant. His frequent digressions about the other residents offer us snapshots of once-vibrant lives constricted by old age: Herr Probst is convinced the milk is poisoned; Herr Kleiber thinks he's been robbed; Frau Grundbacher is obsessed with her stomach. A good walk, Zbinden muses, would help them all.

Musing on the death of his wife, he says: "I thought of all the things I wished I'd said to her; of all the things I wished I'd done. In the end, I knew only that we should appreciate each other more." His only other regret is an uneasy relationship with his biochemist son, Markus, which he partly blames on the latter's preference for cars over walking. But when Zbinden attempts to put this right with a simple expression of love, it becomes a life-affirming moment.

Originally published by The Independent