Dear Readers, when picking a favourite Austrian novel, it really was a choice between two. For those of you wanting to understand the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its demise, I have no higher recommendation than Joseph Roth’s Radesky March. I’ve read it several times and it never fails to engross me with its sweep of history, its characters, and its cinematic quality. I love this book, as you might have gathered. But I have an even greater love for Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, maybe because it is centred on the Austrian Tyrol, and because in its it tells the life of one ordinary man, Andreas Egger, who survives a brutal childhood, finds love, is swept up in to the Second World War, and returns to see his village changing.
Translators are often forgotten when reviewing books by overseas authors, so a shout out here to Charlotte Collins, who manages to capture the clarity, the poignancy and the humour of Seethaler’s prose.
The book starts with an incident.
‘On a February morning in the year 1933 Andreas Egger lifted the dying goatherd Johannes Kalischka, known to all the valley dwellers as Horned Hannes, off his sodden and rather sour-smelling pallet to carry him down to the village along the three-kilometre mountain path that lay buried beneath a thick layer of snow’.
And as the story unfolds, you might think that you are about to enter one of those magic-realism worlds. Fortunately not. Although there is much that is uncanny about these first few pages, the novel is grounded in reality.
‘A cable car was to be built. An aerial cable car powered by direct-current electricity, in whole light-blue wooden cabins people would float up the mountain, enjoying a panoramic view of the whole valley.Cables twenty-five millimetres thick and intertwined like pairs of mating adders would slice through the sky across a distance of almost two thousand metres…..With the cable car, electricity too would come to the valley. Electric current would flow in along buzzing cables and all the streets and houses and barns would glow with warm light, even at night. People were thinking of all this and much more as they threw up their hats and sent their shouts of delight into the clean air. Egger would have liked to cheer with them, but for some reason he stayed sitting on his tree stump. He felt despondent, without knowing why. Perhaps it had something to do with the rattling of the engines, the noise that suddenly filled the valley. Nobody knew when it would go away again, or whether it would ever go away again‘.
As a child, Egger is deposited with a relative in the Tyrol following the death of his mother. The farmer who he is left with treats him viciously, but this a tale completely without sentimentality: Seethaler tells the story with a keen eye for a telling detail.
‘Once, he saw a mountain start to move. A jolt seemed to pass through the side in shadow, and with a deep groan the whole slope began to slide. The mass of earth swept away the forest chapel and a couple of haystacks, and buried beneath it the dilapidated walls of the abandoned Kernsteiner farm, which had been empty for years. A calf, separated from the herd because of an ulcer on its hind leg, was thrown high up into the air along with the cherry tree to which it was tethered: it gawped out over the valley for a moment before the scree surged in and swallowed it whole’.
And so, Andreas grows up in the valley, as strong as the proverbial ox, but with a limp from an encounter with his ‘guardian’.
‘He thought slowly, spoke slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where, in his opinion, such marks were supposed to be’.
Andreas finds work, and love. I defy anyone to read about the way that he proposes to his beloved and not be moved. But, be warned, it pays not to be too attached to anyone in this book. Like the calf in the avalanche, Andreas finds himself caught up in the great sweep of history. He ends up in the Caucasus during the Second World War:
‘It was as if in these pitch-dark Caucasian winter nights, when shell-fire blossomed like blazing flowers over the mountain crests on the horizon, casting its light on the soldiers’ fearful or despairing or blank faces, any thought about purpose or the lack of it was stifled before it could be formulated’.
And, as tourism comes to the valley, he reinvents himself as a tour guide:
‘He always led the way, with an eye on potential dangers and the tourists panting at his back. He liked these people, even if some of them did try to explain the world to him or behaved idiotically in some other way. He knew that during a two-hour uphill climb, if not before, their arrogance would evaporate along with the sweat on their hot heads, until nothing remained but gratitude that they had made it and a tiredness deep in their bones’.
Towards the end of his life he takes a trip on the post bus for the first time. When he gets there, he is utterly overwhelmed and confused, until the bus driver sees him.
‘”Where exactly is it you want to go?” the man asked. Old Egger just stood there, desperately searching for an answer.
“I don’t know,’ he said, and slowly shook his head, over and over again. “I simply don’t know”.
In the end, Andreas is very much a man of the valley, a particular soul from a particular place. But so much of his story resonates with me, especially now, after all that has happened personally during this past few years, and in view of what is going on in the world. This is a book about living through history, and about making meaning out of the hand that you are dealt. I read it in a morning, and will remember it for the rest of my life.
‘He went on along the narrow path up to the mountain, all the way to the Pichlersenke. Up here the ground was soft and the grass short and dark. Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung so tenaciously to the blades of the grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air’.