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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the June 2015 issue

Urs Allemann’s “The Old Man and the Bench”

Reviewed by Anna Aslanyan

In following its own strict logic, Allemann’s fine-tuned absurdism evokes Beckett, who would feel equally at home in the old man's house, with its “bottle room” and “paper bag room,” and on his bench.

The front cover of The Old Man and the Bench has “a novel by Urs Allemann” on it. The book, however, is closer to a novella in length, while its original subtitle – Ein Fünfmonatsgequassel, or A Five-Month Twaddle – transcends conventional genre limits, matching the text both in letter and in spirit. It will disappoint anyone looking for a clear-cut plot and traditional characterization, while those interested in language and its relation to consciousness will be rewarded. If the book can be said to have a message, it is this: in a world where dozens of novels are published daily, one has to choose between saying something new and saying nothing much but in a new way. The Swiss author goes for the latter approach, experimenting with language on a grand scale, doing unspeakable things to it until it turns into some kind of a word machine.

The five-month period of the subtitle is stipulated in a contract that obliges the titular old man to write: “Everything he says is treated as if it were on paper. Everything on paper is treated as if he said it. Excellent working conditions.” Translator Patrick Greaney mentions in his afterword that Allemann produced the book under a similar agreement, after being offered a fellowship that allowed him to work on it for five months. It is announced early on that the old man is “just a metaphorical old man” sitting on a no less metaphorical bench, trying to reminisce about his past. This appears to be the last thing on his mind, which is preoccupied with other things: giant worms eating wood and each other; a tennis match played with glass rackets; a Bunsen burner used to singe words on someone's lips; bitten-off fingers and licked-clean bones.

The old man's thoughts range from random to highly organized, often going round in circles, sometimes looping over every possible permutation of events. In following its own strict logic, Allemann’s fine-tuned absurdism evokes Beckett, who would feel equally at home in the old man's house, with its “bottle room” and “paper bag room,” and on his bench. Another absurdist, Daniil Kharms, whose old women keep falling out of a window until he is fed up watching them, would chuckle at the sight of “a mountain of dead kids” the old man conjures up as his best approximation to childhood memories.

The old man used to be a proofreader: “For his whole life for money he made correct words out of incorrect words correct sentences out of incorrect sentences.” Now language takes its revenge, making its former master say “He'd if he tried to take it off bleed to death” or “sillystorystrichnine,” launching him into a several-page-long sentence with no commas or restricting him to a mere three words per sentence. Greaney takes this style manual on board, reproducing every effect in his meticulous translation, adjusting the rules only where necessary. Dealing with a sentence where every word begins with “A," for instance, he choses content over form and includes other letters in his arsenal to reproduce the old man's list of foul-smelling things in English.

While the narrative machine is running, the reader is reminded that, even though the motion may look perpetual, “if the old man told a hundred thousand stories he would not be able to keep the hundred thousandth story from ending.” Once time's up, the old man is thrown away, the bench “broken down [...] into exactly the same pieces out of which it was assembled.” It is tempting to think of these parts as sentences, phrases and words that constitute the text, to see the process as proof that language requires dual skills: to be able to construct it, one has to know how to deconstruct it, and vice versa. Indeed, the same men that dismantled the bench promptly reinstate the old man to his position (someone got the deadline wrong), where he continues reminiscing until the last second strikes.

Allemann, whose experimental writing won the 2012 Heimrad Bäker Prize, is the editor of a volume of poetry by Robert Walser, another metaphorical figure: a lonely, loony modernist spending a lot of his time outdoors. His trademark repetitions abound in this book; small details – pocket mirrors, hats, trams – resurface. In his short story “A Sort of Speech,” Walser says of well-worn mechanisms for producing and assembling words: “Well, I could go around from person to person, letting each say some new thing, new but also old.” Nearly a century later, one can still set up a word machine to produce characters and a plot, dialogue, and descriptions of the weather. Alternatively, one can pluck up the courage to break one's contract with the reader, reject the novel as a genre and twaddle on. 

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