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Erhard von Büren: Abdankung. Ein Bericht (Epitaph for a Working Man)

Abdankung means something like retirement or resignation in German German but, in Swiss German, it is used for funeral service. Given that the funeral service is a relatively small part of this novel, I think I prefer the English title, which more accurately describes the novel. The working man in question is Alois Haller, though we only learn his first name late in the book and he is generally referred to as Haller or Herr Haller. We know what is going to happen, not only from the title but because the novel opens with the immediate aftermath of his death.

Alois Haller is a stonemason by profession and always has been. He works hard and enjoys working. He is divorced from his wife and has a son, whose first name is not given. Much of what happens in this book is seen through the eyes of the son. The novel is told on a month by month basis. We start with his death but then go back a year, when he first developed what appeared to be a sore on his back. The local doctor, Lätt, removed it surgically but had to admit he was not really sure what it was. He did not have it analysed. When new nodules appear, he is sent to hospital to have them properly examined and, as we have realised, they were cancerous. We follow the development of the nodules and the treatment, which, of course, will eventually result in his death.

Alois lives in a remote old people’s home. There is only one pub there – the Löwen – which mainly survives on the custom of the residents of the home. Alois likes both his drink and his cigarettes and is not prepared to give either up. Fortunately, his two room-mates, Naef and Schertenleib, shares his views. Alois is a strong-willed, determined man. He is highly critical of Dr Lätt (he called Dr Lätt an idiot, a bletherer, a rascal) and also difficult with the hospital doctors. One of them calls him aggressive. He is reluctant to undergo any treatment whatsoever, despite the encouragement of his son and daughter-in-law. Indeed, at one point, he even, only half-jokingly, suggests that he will operate on himself. Moreover, he is determined to keep on working. He has been building a fountain out of scrap stone and, by all accounts, done a very good job. He continues to work as long as he can, not for the money, about which he does not really care, but just to keep on working (and, partially, to get away from the appalling food at the home.) He is, of course, highly critical of the management of the home, calling the manager an office clerk. (If there’s a dripping tap somewhere, he’ll immediately send for a plumber. If there’s a door that sticks, along comes the carpenter, with his mate of course. After all, you have to provide a living for the tradesmen of Breiten, Haulen and Weiermatten. Soon he’ll be calling the electrician for a blown fuse. But what else can you do if you’ve been born with two left hands? People who can’t do anything else become managers).

While we are following Alois’ final year, the development of his illness and his determination to carry on living his life the way way he wants, we are also following his son. His son is a typesetter by trade but has been laid off and cannot find any other work. He is married to Sophie, who works for a successful business man. She is having an affair with him and her husband is well aware of the affair. It does not really bother him too much. Indeed, they still continue to have sex, though not when she has just been with her boss. Sophie even goes on holiday with her boss/lover. Her boss’ wife is not aware of the affair. As he is unemployed, Haller Junior can spend some time helping his father, though the father is not particularly grateful. Indeed, father and son do become a bit closer, as, since the divorce, they had drifted apart. Father and son, however, are very different, except, perhaps, in their marital failures. Haller Junior is not a happy man. Who said you had to be happy? Happiness is a luxury. Joy, too, is something you seldom need to have. You can manage without. The strange idea that I might be happy one day! When, exactly? Tomorrow morning? In a dozen years? The megalomaniac idea that I might achieve happiness. I never will. Apart from helping his father and half-heartedly looking for work, he does seem to do too much.

This is certainly an affectionate portrait of an ordinary, hard-working, independent-minded man and how he struggles to maintain his independence, his free will and his raison d’être, namely that or carrying on working. Von Büren has only written three novels (he is currently working on a fourth) and this, the first, was published when he was nearly fifty. He worked much of his life as a teacher, mostly staying in the same small Swiss town where he was born. He is clearly very much concerned for and in touch with the ordinary man.

Publishing history

First published in 1989 by Zytglogge
First English publication in 2015 by Matador
Translated by Helen Wallimann