Dumped with an uncaring relative after his mother dies of consumption Andreas Eggers connects with the mountain more than with the family that barely tolerate him and when he is strong enough to resist the thrashings, will leave and make his own way as a labourer eventually earning sufficient to buy a plot of land up the mountain where he can build a cabin.
He arrived in the village as a small boy in the summer of 1902, brought by horse-drawn carriage from a town far beyond the mountains. When he was lifted out he stood there, speechless, eyes wide, gazing up in astonishment at the shimmering white peaks. He must have been about four-years-old at the time, perhaps a little younger or older. No one knew exactly, and no one was interested, least of all the farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, who reluctantly took receipt of little Egger and gave the carriage driver the measly tip of two groschen and a crust of hard bread.
A Whole Life is a melancholic yet soothing narrative of days and events that affect the life of Eggers, few of its turning points are initiated by himself – only when it becomes a matter of survival or principal. He is somewhat at the mercy of the mountain, the elements and whatever it is that confronts him. It is a gentle, unassuming novella of an unremarkable life, touchingly evocative yet unsentimental, a tribute to small wonders that make up a relatively uneventful life.
His early life stems from the moment of being left in the place of the family, his later life from having carried a dying man down the mountain, causing him to stop in at the inn, where the briefest touch of a woman becomes the catalyst for the next significant turning point in his life.
‘Another one?’ the young woman asked, and Egger nodded. She brought a fresh glass, and as she leaned forward to put it on the table she touched his upper arm with the fold of her blouse. The touch was barely perceptible, yet it left a subtle pain that seemed to sink deeper into his flesh with every passing second. He looked at her, and she smiled.
All his life Andreas Egger would look back on this moment, again and again; that brief smile that afternoon in front of the quietly crackling guesthouse stove.
Apart from a brief period at war and a longer spell as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, his life is spent living off and around the mountain, a landscape he is at one with, in awe and wary of. It is all that he knows.
Seethaler describes Eggers, his life and environment in thoughtful, elegiac prose creating a man as much in harmony with his surroundings as is possible. He stands for those who observe change and the approach of the modern world from a distance, who accept who they are and where they have been placed and have only the occasional fleeting desire to move, but will do so when it is necessary.
He thought of the fact that, apart from trips to the Bitterman & Sons cable cars and chair lifts in the surrounding area, he had only left the neighbourhood on one single occasion: to go to war. He thought about how once, along this very road, back then little more than a deeply rutted track across the fields, he had come to the valley for the first time on the box of a horse-drawn carriage. And at that moment he was overcome with a longing so searing and profound he thought his heart would melt. Without looking back he got up and ran.
I loved this book, it reminded me a little of Julio Llamazares set in the Spanish Pyrenees The Yellow Rain, another novella with a strong connection to the village/environment, a kind of wistful resistance, imploring the reader to understand what it means to be human and so strongly connected to a place.
No surprise this novella became a bestseller in Germany and Austria and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2016, we are fortunate to have had it translated so beautifully by Charlotte Collins into English.
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 at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Robert Seethaler is an actor (most recently in Paulo Sorrentino’s Youth) and writer, he grew up in Germany and now lives in Berlin. A Whole Life is his fifth novel and the first to be translated into English.
Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator, and has also translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.
Irish Times Review – One man endures, one day at a time by Eileen Battersby
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