For Lukas Zbinden, walking is a way of life. At eighty-seven, he is still an avid walker and insists on going for walks outside as often as possible, rain or snow or shine. Now that he lives in an assisted living home, he needs to convince a caretaker to walk with him, and some are more willing than others. When we join him, he has just met a new caretaker named Kâzim.
Listen, Kâzim, I don’t want to keep you back, but would you do me a favour, young man? Would you accompany me on a walk outside? I know you’ve lots to do, but I assure you, you won’t regret a walk! Precisely because you’ve lots to do. Walking is the oldest form of mental and physical exercise.
In a brilliant use of narrative time, the bulk of the novel spans the time it takes for Lukas—slow and cautious in his old age—and Kâzim—patient and seemingly happy enough to help Lukas and let him bend his ear—to descend the ninety-four steps to the lobby and, ultimately, the front door.
Taking the elevator—or, as British English is the norm in this translation: the lift—is out of the question. The stairs are the obvious choice for a self-proclaimed walker like Zbinden who, besides, has a hard time grappling with the decidedly odd behavior of people in elevators (i.e., the norm of walking in and turning back around to face the door, pretending the other people aren’t there). As he explains to Kâzim:
If I have to use a lift, I like to turn my back to the door, look into the others’ faces and say, “Wouldn’t it be great if the lift got stuck and we all got to know each other?”
Do you know what happens then? When the door opens on the next floor, they all get out.
Zbinden goes on to explain that he often gets similar reactions when he’s out for a walk, and he says hello to perfect strangers, and they get offended simply because he’s said something to them without knowing them already.
Such is the character of Lukas Zbinden. He swears by walking as a way of being in the world, and he claims that one of the greatest benefits of going for walks is the chance to meet all sorts of different and potentially wonderful people while you’re out walking. As a schoolteacher, his favorite subject to teach was geography. One of the greatest lessons he tried to teach his pupils was that
[t]he earth is a sphere. Countless paths lead from person to person. School isn’t about counting and spelling. It’s about learning to get along with your fellow human beings.
Lukas and his late wife Emilie met and fell in love out of a mutual love for walking. Their son, on the other hand, is obsessed with cars and resented being forced to go on walks as a child. Besides the topic of walking—indeed one he returns to again and again—Lukas’s musings revolve around his life with Emilie, their walks together, and his ongoing struggle to connect with his son, who seems to be cut from a very different cloth.
The narrative style of Zbinden’s Progress is a sort of monodialogue: it’s not quite a monologue, though Zbinden’s is the only voice we hear. Nor is it a dialogue exactly, though Zbinden occasionally asks Kâzim a question and we can infer, from Zbinden’s side, that Kâzim both answers Zbinden’s questions and asks him some of his own. Zbinden is constantly interrupting himself to greet and have short conversations with all the other residents and caretakers he meets on his way down the stairs, but again, even though there are pauses to indicate the other people’s responses and we can more or less infer what they’ve said based on Zbinden’s replies, the only words on the page are the ones Zbinden speaks.
In a way, the narrative form mimics a walk: walking can be a social activity, and you might interact with any number of people (or animals, or trees, or buildings, if that’s more your style) along the way, but at its heart, walking is a highly individual experience, in that the impressions left by the walk, although they may be influenced by others, are ultimately the walker’s own.
Walking—and to be more specific, going for a walk—strikes me as a very human activity. We might go for a stroll around the neighborhood or a hike through the woods; our ancestors may have trekked across a continent as pioneers on the Oregon Trail or in much earlier migrations as hunter-gatherers. Walking is one of the simplest, most ancient ways of interacting with and exploring the world we live in, and as humans in an increasingly indoor and insular world, we might do well to take Zbinden’s advice and take the time to get to know the world outside.
Zbinden’s Progress, then, is a lovely meditation on walking, on life, on walking as a way of life, a way of being in the world, and of being human. It’s also a relatively short book, which Zbinden would surely think wise because, in his own words:
a large part of what we experience drowns in words. Occasionally, I catch myself having the heretical thought that the time invested in telling someone about a walk might be better used going for more.