The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A book which quietly and with minimal fuss goes about telling its story. Translated from the German, this is a poignant tale set in Austria on the eve of World War 2. The paperback version of this book is beautifully and cozily illustrated and entices the reader into its un-showy thrall.
The book opens without much pretense about the characters. We are dropped right into young Franz’s idyllic little existence in a beautiful village in Austria, among the mountains of the Salzkammergut, where he lives with his mother. However, his life is about to undergo a sudden transformation; their benefactor and his mother’s lover has died in a freak drowning accident and money is about to get tight. His mother calls in a favor she is owed by an old friend and sends Franz to Vienna to be an apprentice at a Tobacconist’s shop. Initially overcome with homesickness and foreboding, Franz allows himself to be taken over by the wonder of the big city and gets caught up in the life of the shop and its patrons.
The tobacconist himself, Otto Trsnyek, is a bit of an enigma; injured in the previous World War, he got the shop as compensation and has been there ever since, selling newspapers, cigarettes and “all the trimmings.” His customers include a certain Dr. Sigmund Freud, who Franz gets acquainted with and to whom he turns to for advice on various problems of existence, prime of them being his having fallen in love with a Bohemian performer, Anezka. As Franz indulges in his despair over his disappearing lover and continues his otherwise idyllic existence in the shop, there are bigger clouds hovering threatening to spill their wares on the city. For, it is the time of Nazi Germany, and the Fuhrer has taken over the fancy of a lot of Austrians too who believe his arrival in their country foretells good times. This, of course, means testing times for the city’s Jewish inhabitants, of which Freud is one. As Franz starts becoming aware of the burgeoning situation, can he and the Tobacconist stay out of trouble or will they also get sucked into the growing whirlpool of despair?
The story provides answers to all this, though in its own subtle style. As the Gestapo rein in the citizens, Franz handles his lot with quiet dignity, while not shirking from making his point, despite the inevitable consequences. In between, he and his mother keep up a steady stream of postcard correspondences to each other.
It’s a compelling story told in a no frills manner, at times perhaps a bit too no frills. Franz’s initial sense of childlike wonder at both the city and his first love gradually ebb away into despair and resignation as he realizes the truths of the world he inhabits. As the storm approaches, people’s natures and allegiances shine a light into their mental map and at how a charismatic leader can sway a populace to betray themselves (or maybe realize their true selves). Franz’s interactions with Freud are a clever mix of wry humor, childishly despairing pleas (by Franz) and some sudden bursts of existential brilliance. Sample this for one of the dialogs:
Freud: “Most paths do at least seem vaguely familiar to me. But it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity—or, best of all, all three at once—can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”
This is a worthwhile read on the nature of life and love and an inevitable loss of innocence of both. One wishes though that, at times at least, it could have been a bit more urgent in its prose.