Review-A Whole Life: A Novel by Robert Seethaler

I received a review copy of this title from Farrar, Straus & Giroux via Netgalley. The book was published in the original German in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Charlotte Collins.

My Review:
a-whole-lifeWe are first introduced to Andres Egger in 1933 when he has had an unexplained instinct to pay a visit to his elderly neighbor, Horned Hannes.  Hannes is a reclusive goatherd who lives in the same Austrian mountain village as Egger and when Egger finds the old man he is barely alive.  Egger attempts to carry the goatherd on his back down the mountain but in a fit of madness due to his fever the goatherd runs off into the snow never to be seen again.  Between the time that Egger loses the goatherd while carrying him down the mountain and the goatherd’s petrified body is found forty years later on a mountain ledge, we are told the story of Egger’s whole life.

From the beginning of the book there is a sense of foreboding and ill omen.  As Egger is struggling down the mountain side with the goatherd strapped to his back they engage in an eerie conversation about death.  Horned Hannes tells Egger:  “People say death brings forth new life, but people are stupider than the stupidest nanny goat.  I say death brings forth nothing at all!  Death is the Cold Lady.”  This discussion of death hangs over the entire story like a dark storm cloud.  Egger’s tragic beginnings as an orphaned child further serve to set the tone as one of tragedy and misfortune.

Egger is orphaned as a small boy of four when his mother dies of consumption and he is sent to live with a distant relative.  The relative, a farmer named Hubert Kranzstocker, took pleasure in beating the small boy with a hazel rod for the slightest indiscretions like spilling his dinner.  Kranzstocker is so brutal in his beatings that he breaks the boy’s leg and causes Egger to have a limp for the rest of his life.  The author builds sympathy for this boy throughout the first part of the narrative: “To all intents and purposes he was not seen as a child.  He was a creature whose function was to work, pray, and bare his bottom for the hazel rod.”  To an outsider looking in, this wretched boy who is given no love and no warm place to call his own is deserving of the utmost pity;  but Egger himself would never think to waste a single moment on self-pity.  He stoically accepts what fate has to offer him and he does the best he can given his awful fate.

When Egger finally breaks free of his abusive relative at the age of eighteen he supports himself by taking on odd jobs and he saves up to buy himself a small piece of land on the mountain.  His earthly possessions are meager but they are his pride and joy because he bought them with his own earnings and he can make what he wants out of them.  The most sentimental thing that he owns is the gate that leads onto his property; one day he hopes to open the gate to a real visitor so he can show someone what he has made of the place.  This is a subtle hint that although Egger doesn’t complain about his isolation from the rest of the village, he still experiences loneliness and longs for some human contact and intimacy.  His visitor finally does come, in the form of a woman as gentle and brave as Egger himself.  But once again, cruel fate has other circumstances in store for Egger.

Egger eventually gets a regular job helping to build cable cars that will ferry tourists up to the top of the mountain.  He has conflicting emotions about his job because although it does provide him with a steady and respectable income, he doesn’t like cutting down trees and disturbing the natural landscape of his beloved mountain.  Egger recognizes the tension that his mountain must feel as each piece of rock is blasted from her façade and each precious tree is felled from her forest.  There is a hint in the text that the destruction caused by avalanches that occasionally happen on the mountain are mother nature’s way of exacting her revenge.

Through the years Egger continues to work hard and survive the best way that he knows how.  He has an adventure during World War II when, after fighting for only a couple of months, he is captured by the Russians and lives for years in a prison camp.  Even while he is in the camp Egger never complains about his fate.  As long as there is enough work in the camp to keep him busy then his mind is able to endure much more hardship than most.  And looking back on his life, perhaps it is the misery of Egger’s early years that have helped him to become strong and to even survive the hunger, disease and cold of a Russian prison camp.

The author’s simple prose is fitting for the life of this simple man; Egger’s story is emotionally jarring yet uplifting at the same time.  When the book comes to its end Egger has lived to be almost eighty years old and he has no regrets in his whole life:  “He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death.  He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go.  But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”

About the Author and Translator:
r-seethalerRobert Seethaler was born in Vienna in 1966 and is the author of four previous novels. He also works as an actor, most recently in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. He lives in Berlin.

 

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the U.K. before becoming a literary translator. She previously translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

 

14 Comments

Filed under German Literature, Literature in Translation, Novella

14 responses to “Review-A Whole Life: A Novel by Robert Seethaler

  1. This book has not fared very well with many reviewers and bloggers, especially during the International Booker Shadow Jury process. Can you sense why that might be?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was on the MBIP shadow panel again this year and I really liked A Whole Life which I thought was spare but satisfying. I think some of the other panel members disliked the way Andreas was so passive as a character as he didn’t really create opportunities for himself and just accepted everything as it is.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I guess I took a different view of it. I think that many people, when faced with the number of tragedies that struck Egger, would have just given up on life. I thought he always moved forward no matter what and I admired him for that.

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    • I can think of two things, Joe. First it is a novella and maybe jurors expect something more meaty for the list. Another is that the book is rather melancholy and I think that some might be turned off by that. But I enjoyed it and I found Egger to be humble but brave.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I can think of two things, Joe. First it is a novella and maybe jurors expect something more meaty for the list. Another is that the book is rather melancholy and I think that some might be turned off by that. But I enjoyed it and I found Egger to be humble but brave.

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  2. Vishy

    Wonderful review, Melissa! I loved this book and it is one of my favourites of the year. You have captured the book so beautifully in your review! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I thought that this was an extraordinary book and I’m sorry to hear that the International Booker Shadow Jury found it lacking. Like Vishy, it was one of my favourites from last year. Thanks for reminding me of it, Melissa. I’ve recently read The Tobacconist and loved that, too, although it’s much darker.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was one of those who really didn’t take to this. Apart from the narrative trick of allowing the war to pass in a few pages to give the impression he had never left the mountains, the ‘no regrets’ really jarred with me – either this is meant ironically (which is not how I found those that liked the book reading it) or we have a character who demands very little from life. In the second half he largely refuses to have anything to do with anyone else – by choice. I wonder how many people who feel this is some kind of philosophical standpoint would like to live his life?

    Liked by 1 person

    • His isolation from the rest of the village didn’t bother me and, in fact, given his circumstances it was only natural for him to feel like and outsider. From the moment he steps foot in that small village he is viewed as a misfit. At the beginning of the book when he is still a young man the kids in town are making fun of him and calling him “Gimpy Leg.” I also saw in him some of the same characteristics that I see in students with emotional issues and students who are on the autism spectrum (especially when he deals with Marie). He is shy and speaks very little and his work ethic is such that it borders on obsession. For all of these reasons, his isolation from the village seemed appropriate for his circumstances.

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  5. buriedinprint

    Despite the idea of a storm cloud hanging over this story, it also sounds like there is something strangely calming about the style, or maybe I’m misunderstanding? On a lighter note, the cover is mesmerizing. (And I wonder: *is* there such a thing as a gregarious goatherd?)

    Liked by 1 person

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