The Saturday Read ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler

Too often we seek advice and counsel from the plethora of self-help books that line the shelves of bookstores. What we miss are the life lessons divulged under the guise of fiction.

The Saturday Read this week takes us to the Austrian Alps in 1933 to observe ‘A Whole Life’, the best selling German novel by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins.

The story is Andreas Egger’s, an everyman’s narrative of life, work, tragedy and values. It’s short, the perfect read for a plane trip or a couple of days commute. In this case brevity doesn’t diminish the tale. The simple, beautiful language reveals a literary character that will stay with you long after the story ends.

Throughout the book, the author stores small gems of wisdom, life lessons. In one scene, Andreas approaches the general manager of a construction site to negotiate a raise. Upon reaching agreement on a salary increase, Andreas promises to work even harder. The manager replies:

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.”

After years in construction, and more years as a prisoner of war, Andreas returns to his village and eventually finds work as a hiking guide.

“Egger didn’t usually speak on his walks. ‘When someone opens their mouth they close their ears,’ Thomas Mattl had always said, and Egger was of the same opinion. Instead of talking, he preferred to listen to these people, whose breathless chatter revealed to him the secrets of other fates and opinions. People were evidently looking for something in the mountains that they believed they lost a long time ago. He never worked out what exactly this was, but over the years he became more and more certain that the tourists were stumbling not so much after him, but after some obscure, insatiable longing. 

In the closing pages, we observe Andreas in retirement, at the end of his ‘whole life’.

“Once a week he went down to the village to get matches and paint, or bread, onions, butter. He had realized long ago that people there speculated about him. When he set off for home…he would see them out of the corner of his eye, putting their heads together and starting to whisper behind his back. Then he would turn around and give them the blackest look of which he was capable. Yet in truth he didn’t much care about the villager’s opinions or their outrage. To them he was just an old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a mountain stream to wash every morning. As far as he was concerned, though, he had done all right, and thus had every reason to be content… In his life he too, like all people had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone on his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.”

Reviewers have noted the book’s unique appeal as an understated novel in a publishing world sustained by hype and celebrity. Eileen Battersby concluded her analysis for the Irish Times with “No praise is too high for A Whole Life. Its daunting beauty lingers. This is a profound, wise and humane novel that no reader will forget.”

I agree.

The book, published in 2015 and shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize will be published in the U.S. in September.


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