Bookreview: “A whole Life” by Robert Seethaler

A whole lifeAbout two days after the “Meet the author” during which Robert Seethaler had been interviewed, his bestseller had suddenly materialised in one of the libraries I frequent. “Ein ganzes Leben” – “A whole life”- was available not in translation, but in the original German. As Robert Seethaler had mentioned how important he found it to find and use the right words to craft his sentences and stories, this seemed extremely important. For whole pages sometimes get lost in translations.

The first few pages were familiar. The author had read these to the public during the event. The reader is introduced to Andreas Egger on a snowy February morning in 1933. Andreas, the novel’s main character, is trying to bring a fellow mountaineer, “Hörnerhannes”, off the mountain to the village.

On the way down, Hörnerhannes starts talking to Andreas about “die kalte Frau”. This cold woman is part of the local folklore and is one of death’s many faces. Hörnerhannes is scared stiff. In fact, he’s so afraid to meet her, he runs off back into the mountains. Andreas cries after him that it’s totally useless: nobody can run away from death.

Only towards the end of Andreas’ life and the book, does it become clear what has happened to Hörnerhannes. Not much later, Andreas does spot the cold woman, but she has not yet come for him. His body will be found much later, after a long, harsh, lonely life.

HB Seethaler_978-3-446-24645-4_MR.inddNot that Andreas is dissatisfied with his lot. Andreas is a simple man. He doesn’t wish for, nor needs the moon to be contend with his lot. Yet his life contains more tragedies than happiness.

As Robert Seethaler stated during the interview: you can’t capture a human’s life in 160 pages nor in 160,000. So like a real human being looking back and going over his or her life, this novel describes episodes which are somehow important in the main character’s life.

The event with Hörnerhannes takes about the first fourteen pages of the slim book. After Hörnerhannes runs off into mist and snow towards certain death, Andreas needs a drink. He enters the village pub and meets his future wife Marie for the first time. Their first meeting is something he will remember for the rest of his life.

The next episode takes place three months later. Andreas witnesses the arrival of the first Bittermann & Söhne firm’s labourers in the village. They will build the valley’s first cableway up into the mountains. They are the first sign, that life in the mountain valley will change more and more rapidly.

Andreas joins the other cheering villagers. The next sentence states he never cheered or cried as a child. The reader is then introduced to roughly the first two decades of Andreas’ life through a flashback. He’s born outside the valley and the only reason his uncle accepts him is money. Not that uncle treats Andreas kindly. Beatings ensure Andreas ends up a cripple.

This flashback is followed by an episode explaining Andreas saved up money as a casual laborer. He is able to lease a small plot of land. Much later, when Andreas has joined Bittermann & Söhne’s, he and his wife Marie will live on this piece of land. It will be the place where Marie and their unborn child die.

This careful lacing and interlacing of scenes and events, enables Robert Seethaler to tell Andreas’ life story, while also incorporating major events like the world wars, arrival of electricity in the mountain valley, the start of the tourist industry, men landing on the moon and much more. For Andreas’ life roughly covers the last decade of the 19th century right up to the late seventies or early eighties of the 20th century.

Many episodes and memories have a clear indication when they occur. Sometimes a specific year is given, sometimes there is a sentence telling the reader an episode takes place that many decades or years after a previous one. So though Andreas experiences time as condensing or expanding and fluid, the reader is never lost. The use of time and markers, in combination with Andreas’ point of view and the incorporation of real events, create a totally convincing story.

The book is also full of cameo scenes and beautiful descriptions. These capture local lore as well as the locals themselves, or describe the mountains and nature as experienced by Andreas. Towards the end of the interview, a member of the public asked the author how he managed to describe mountainlife so convincingly. Mr Seehalter answered that though born in Vienna, his family took him on regular mountain holidays. So he got to know the environment through all seasons from an early age.

One of the cameo scenes is the one describing the local pastor blessing the first two cable cabins. (Page 58, “Ein ganzes Leben”.) The hobnobs, mayor and pastor – villagers and labourers stand at a distance – nearly freeze during the service, as their best clothes are not suitable for the mountainous environment.

Of course, the villagers will never ever use the official name, but refer to the two cabins as “Blaue Liesl” or blue Lizzy. For the cabins and the mayor’s wife are all “flat fronted”. A few pages after the blessing of “Blaue Liesl”, the mayor with his flat-chested, blond and blue-eyed wife, supports Adolf Hitler.

Andreas feels an urge to enlist, but being a cripple is of course turned down. When he’s finally called up, he does not understand why. The reader knows the war has cost Germany too many lives already: even cripples are now needed.

The journalist who interviewed mr Seethaler, told the public Andreas only leaves his village once. Anybody who has read the story, knows this is incorrect. Andreas quits the village and valley at least twice. One of these occurs when he enlists and is sent off to the Caucasus.

When Andreas returns nearly a decade after the end of the second world war: “… Der Bürgermeister war nun kein Nazi mehr, statt Hakenkruzfänchen hingen wieder Geranien vor den Festern und auch sonst hatte sich viel verändert im Dorf. …” (p 97, “Ein ganzes Leben”: The mayor was no longer a Nazi and instead of small flags sporting swastikas, there were geraniums in front of the windows again and much else had also changed in the village.”)

The reason this novel appeals to so many and makes such a deep impression, are not only the descriptions of changing village life, nor the beauty and harshness of mountain life, or the tragedies Andreas has to cope with. This gem of a story captures something universal as in this paragraph:

“… Wie alle Menschen hatte auch er während seines Lebens Vorstellungen und Träume in sich getragen. Manches davon hatte er sich selbst erfüllt, manches war ihm gschenkt worden. Vieles war unerreichbar geblieben oder war ihm, kaum erreicht, wieder aus den Händen gerissen worden. Aber er war immer noch da. Und wenn er in den Tagen nach der ersten Schneeschmelze morgens über die taunasse Wiese vor seiner Hütte ging und sich auf einen der verstreuten Flachfelsen legte, in seinem Rücken den kühlen stein und im Gesicht die ersten warmen Sonnenstrahlen, dann hatte er das Gefühl, dass vieles doch gar nit so schlecht gelaufen war.” (pp 141 – 142, “Ein ganzes Leben”.)

It is difficult to render the poetic yet starke and tense German into a similarly beautiful English. It boils down to something like:

“… Like everybody else, throughout his life, he had carried within himself ideas and dreams. Many of these, he had managed to realise himself, while others had been granted him. Many more had remained outside his grasp, or once grasped, had been torn from his hands. Yet he was still here. And when the days of the first thaw arrived, when early each morning the dew covered the grass in front of his hut and he lay down on one of the scattered, flat rocks with his back on the cool stone and his face catching the first rays of warm sunshine, he felt that much had worked out rather well for him.”

This slim but rich story is beautifully crafted. It is a book full of recurring symbols, images and scenes. Despite the sometimes heartrending episodes, it reads quite easily. It can be read as just a simple story, or as quite a deep and moving one.

It is not difficult to understand why it appeals to so many readers and has been on bestsellers lists ever since it was first published. What is difficult to grasp is why it has not been awarded more prizes. If German is no obstacle for you: get a copy. If you need an English translation: fortunately, this will be available within a few weeks.

“Ein ganzes Leben”, Robert Seethaler, pp 160, Hanser Berlin, München, 2014.
“A whole life”, Robert Seethaler, pp 160, PanMacmillan, available from July 2015 onwards.

Frankfurther Algemeine review
Der Spiegel review

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