Translated from the German by Stefan Tobler
I’m beginning to notice something of a trend in my reading. Writers who have a parent living with Dementia will often take the opportunity to write about the experience. Many of these books are much more interesting and, dare I say it, better written than the regular Dementia biographies. In The Old King in His Exile, Austrian novelist, Arno Geiger turns his attention to his father and charts the progress of his illness over several decades. The slow progression of the text was one of the main things I enjoyed about this book. Geiger has made a point of letting the story take its time.
“With this book, I wanted to take my time. I saved up for six years. At the same time, I wanted to write it before my father died. I didn’t want to tell his story after his death. I wanted to write about a living person. I felt that my father, like everyone else, deserved to have an open-ended destiny.”
The book reads more like a novel than a regular biography. There are small snippets of conversation included, frequent trips back into the past as Geiger presents the reader with his father’s history and small vignettes of everyday life. It is beautifully written and meandering in tone. There’s a gentleness I loved about the way Geiger approaches his father’s illness. He gives the older man room to be what he needs to be. There’s no sense of rushing his story, no sense of trying to impose sense upon the narrative. This is not Dementia utilised as a plot device. This is carefully and respectfully bearing witness to the last few years of a loved one’s life. I particularly loved the image Geiger used to describe his father’s gentle decline.
I half-remembered a phrase about ending something in beauty. If my father carried on like this, then the same would be true for him as I had once read in a Thomas Hardy novel, which talked of an old man who approached death as a hyperbolic curve approaches a straight line – changing his direction so slowly that, in spite of the nearness, it was unclear that the two would ever meet.”
I know I will return to this text. It has offered me a blueprint for how to write about a person living with Dementia with dignity, respect and above all things, space. It seems almost wrong to have to point this out, but many Dementia memoirs are more focused upon the person recording the life, than the person whose story it actually is. The Old King in his Exile is definitely Geiger’s father’s story, yet in writing it with so much openness and genuine fondness, Geiger constantly reveals more and more about his own character.
The Old King in His Exile was published by And Other Stories in 2017