This is a short novel of gentle power and emotional heft. A treatise of a man seemingly perpetually on the sidelines of the world but whose life encompasses a spectrum of events and feelings which may appear inconsequential to a wider lens but ensures, at least in his own eyes, that he has lived it well and with purpose. And it is this life that Robert Seethaler, shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, draws us into with deceptively expert craft.
The man in question is Andreas Egger and he has spent almost his entire life, from the moment he was brought as an orphaned boy to his uncle’s house, in a village set among the remote mountains of Germany at the dawn of the twentieth century. Life is brutal for the young Andreas at his uncle’s home, where he is treated more like a beast of burden than kin, but he persists until he grows into adulthood and moves out on his own. It’s a cold, spare place with few frills, but Andreas makes it his home and makes every nook and cranny of it a part of his mental map.
Once he moves out of his uncle’s home, he initially takes up odd jobs to survive and then moves onto more serious pursuits, like working for the construction company building the cable cars across the mountains. He finds love and marriage in scenes of beautiful simplicity and warmth and experiences the horrors of World War 2, before winding down his later years as a guide in the mountains to eager tourists. Through it all he remains the same as ever, a man of few words but disarmingly simple honesty and grit.
This is the second book of Seethaler’s I’m reading in relatively quick succession. The first one I read, The Tobacconist, is milder in the impact it had on me and it can be seen as a precursor to this one. The style in both is the same; understated, simple and real prose with characters who on the outside do not attract much attention but who are opened up to the readers gradually to show a wealth of depth and emotion. However, there is no doubt that this one is the more powerful work.
Small in size perhaps, but in no other way.