A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler arrives on the Man Booker International Prize long list in a rather unusual position. Seethaler himself is largely unknown, but his novel had been a best seller in Germany (presumably it was also a best seller in his native Austria as well, but that somehow sounds less impressive) and already seems to be something of a commercial success here (I base this on Waterstones’ promotion, and the fact that someone in my book group has already suggested it as our next book). In all this, it has something in common with another German-language novel from last year, Look Who’s Back, though I think it’s fair to say Seethaler is not trying to be funny.
A Whole Life is the story of Andreas Egger, a taciturn, morose individual who lives in a small village in the mountains:
“As a child Andreas Egger had never shouted or cheered. He didn’t even really talk until his first year at school.”
To be fair, Egger’s childhood is nothing to shout (or cheer) about: when his mother dies the “about four years old” Egger is sent to live with a relative who regularly beats him with a hazel rod. One particular beating leaves him with a broken thigh, and, although it is set, the injury causes him to limp thereafter. Despite his limp, Egger is strong:
“He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.”
Soon he gets a job with a company building the infrastructure needed to run cable cars across the mountains. Egger’s story is also that of the twentieth century and the cable cars represent the arrival of technology in the rural setting. Despite Egger’s employment, they are portrayed rather negatively in the novel, with the phrase “a scar through the forest” being used more than once. They are also possibly complicit in the saddest event in Egger’s life (which I won’t mention, there being such little plot in this novel it would seem a shame to reveal one of the most affecting scenes). When war breaks out, the company begin to make armaments instead; Egger, meanwhile, uses his expertise on the Eastern Front, spending eight years in a Russian prisoner of war camp as a result. When Egger returns from the prison camp, he finds a new occupation as a mountain guide: now tourism, rather than farming, provides the village’s income.
Unsurprisingly, given the novel’s title, it begins and ends with death. It opens with Egger’s attempt to rescue a goatherd from a snowstorm in the mountains. Suddenly the goatherd runs away from him and into the storm:
“Stop, you stupid fool! No one has ever outrun Death!”
At the end, the memory returns to him:
“’Not just yet,’ he said quietly; and winter settled over the valley.”
Egger feels his own life is “without regret” and there is a temptation to think of this book as an account of a simple life from simpler times; one rooted in place, finding contentment in the ordinary. However, this seems a very superficial reading: there is little evidence, for example, that Eggers is content, though it might be true to say that he lacks the imagination to be miserable. When, in later life, he has a chance of companionship with the school teacher, Anna, he rejects it:
“He wasn’t able to overcome his inhibitions. He had lain there motionless, as if nailed to the spot…”
When he hears Anna crying, he leaves. Surely there should be something to regret about a life lived almost entirely alone?
His positive qualities as a worker also need more closely examined as they seem to largely consist of working hard for little reward and not complaining. Seethaler does not disguise his working conditions: at one point, felling pines in the forest, a work-mate loses an arm due to “bad luck”. And, of course, there’s the eight year of his life he spends imprisoned thanks to a madman’s war (though they take up only a few pages of the novel).
Perhaps, then, I underestimate Seethaler when I say he isn’t trying to be funny: Egger’s lack of regrets seems to be a very dark joke indeed, as does the fact that some readers are under the impression that the novel contains ‘wisdom’, presumably referring to such aphorisms as “It’ll sort itself out, like everything in life” and “The old die making way for the new. That’s how it is and how it’ll always be!” Even the novel’s length seems a joke at Egger’s expense.
Whether A Whole Life will make it onto the short list is difficult to say. I suspect it will be a book which warms some and leaves others cold, as befitting a novel where its unremarkable ordinariness is both its selling point and flaw.