Arno Geiger’s playful and moving memoir “The Old King in his Exile” discovers a world of imagination in his father’s dementia.
There are probably few things that touch us more fundamentally than the loss of a parent. Through the creeping loss of Alzheimer’s, family members face immense, often unbearable, challenges. Shocking vulnerability becomes strangely intertwined with the business of everyday life. When this difficult situation unfolds within a father-son relationship, and is made public through the writing of a memoir, the writer son risks being accused of presumption, even betrayal, as in the case of Tilman Jens’ Vatermord.
The Vorarlberg author Arno Geiger has taken this risk and succeeded: His poetic, ultimately optimistic, memoir offers a frank portrayal of his father’s advancing dementia. With a light, almost playful touch – a hallmark of his prose that has earned him many accolades, including the first German Book Prize – Geiger confronts the illness while still managing to honor his father’s dignity.
In a series of short sections, each prefaced by quotes from his father, Geiger offers a sketch of August Geiger’s life and character prior to the onset of the illness. Then gradually, the reader is introduced to the everyday reality of life with dementia. There are moments of reckoning here: With the benefit of hindsight, the author takes himself and his siblings to task for their inability, or unwillingness, to recognize and accept their father’s ever-more frequent oddness and lapses as signs of his encroaching illness.
In one moving anecdote, a photo portrait of August taken shortly after the Second World War and carefully kept for many decades is unaccountably lost, resonating with the larger story of mental decline. Living alone following the breakdown of his marriage, August’s isolation is a central theme of the book. For a man who grew up in a close-knit farming community, it is painful and bewildering. Apart from his wartime experiences on the Eastern Front, he had spent his entire life in the village where he was born, later becoming the parish secretary and a respected member of the community.
Now he is irrevocably estranged from the people who surround him; the friendly greetings of neighbors leave him baffled; even the house he built with his own hands has become unfamiliar. Herein lies much of the power of Geiger’s narrative, a picture of the dementia sufferer’s existential homelessness: August can no longer feel truly at home anywhere.
CONNECTED THROUGH IMAGINATION
Still, the remnants of cultural connection continue to offer brief moments of respite. In a particularly moving scene, the singing of folk songs gives the father a glimpse once again of a timeless bond between generations. Altogether, Geiger’s description of the absurd, even pitiless situations that inevitably arise is ultimately affectionate and respectful, at least in retrospect; the narrator persists in trying to find some silver lining among the gathering clouds of the progressive illness. The focus is also on the son’s search for the inner resources, the patience and tolerance that he increasingly needs in his dealings with his father; this learning curve offsets the relentlessness of the father’s deterioration and secures him a modicum of dignity.
In the spirit of the book’s epigraph, taken from Hokusai – “You have to show what is most universal in a personal way” – Geiger seeks to forge connections between the father’s strange new life and the outside world, so the son’s creative imagination becomes an important connection between the two. Weaving August into a tapestry of literary quotations, Arno portrays his father as an unwitting wordsmith, a sort of experimental poet, whose fundamental humanity shines through his estranged speech. Arno gleans from the confused language of the sufferer the words he needs to recast him as a literary hero.
Some readers may find these efforts questionable; it is as if the son puts his ailing father on stage, displaying this late-flowering verbal ingenuity alongside his demise, like Goneril humoring the raging Lear. The attempt can sometimes seem contrived, but regardless of how one feels about Geiger’s artistic ambition, the book remains an impressive achievement, one that records moments of unexpected happiness and possibilities for a more optimistic and empowering engagement with dementia.