Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 15, 2018

The Tobacconist, by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins #BookReview

Susan from ‘A Life in Books’ recommended The Tobacconist to me after I read Robert Seethaler’s debut novel A Whole Life.  (See my review).  I reserved it at my library and it came in promptly – too promptly, in a way, (though I shouldn’t complain), because I didn’t really want to read another melancholy book about the impact of WW2 on ordinary people in Austria quite so soon.  That might have coloured my perception of the book a little…

Still, it’s a very fine book.  Once again it features a country lad, born and raised far away from events that were shaking up Europe but affected by them all the same.  But everything soon changes when his mother sends 17-year-old Franz to Vienna.  The source of her funds disappears along with her lover into the local lake, and so Franz goes to work with a tobacconist called Otto Trsnyek, a one-legged veteran of the First World War.

At first Franz’s priorities centre around girls, and love, and when he makes the acquaintance of Sigmund Freud, that is who he talks to about love because for Otto, love was over a long time ago and he has no advice to give.  The mood of these early pages of the novel is like many a bildungsroman as Franz discovers the charms of a good-time-girl called Anezka, but before long it darkens – because the novel is set not long before the Anschluss of 13 March 1938, in which Nazi Germany annexed Austria.

Soon there are indications that ‘life ain’t no fairytale’ and as Franz begins to revel in being thought a friend of the famous Freud, he becomes more aware of dangers which had seemed no more than talk.  He has become fond of Otto (who has Jewish customers) and is outraged when the butcher next door daubs anti-Semitic slogans in pig’s blood on Otto’s shop window.

The novel is narrated by a third-person narrator from Franz’s perspective, but there is also correspondence between Franz and his mother in the faraway village of Nussdorf am Attersee in the Salzkammergut region.  This correspondence starts as an exchange of postcards, each one prefaced by a brief description of the picturesque sights.  Franz sends a postcard headed Postcard of Schönbrunn Palace gardens, lamplit and sugar-frosted with snow, and his mother sends in reply a Postcard of the Attersee, green and shimmering like a jewel, clearly taken from a an aeroplane or Zeppelin. But as things become more difficult these picture-postcard images of a lovely city have become a lie, and so Franz initiates an exchange of letters instead, although he tells his mother it’s because the things I want to write won’t all fit on a single postcard and he makes only veiled references to politics:

These are strange times right now. Or perhaps the times were always strange and I just didn’t notice. (p.149)

We realise from allusions in Mama’s reply, that the evil has reached even their remote village too:

Thank you so much for your letter.  You wrote so beautifully, and I was really pleased. The weather is warm here.  The Schafberg has a friendly look and the lake is silvery or blue or green, according to its mood.  They’ve planted big swastika flags on the bank.  They reflect in the water and look very correct.  In fact everyone is very correct all of a sudden, running around with important faces.  Just imagine, Hitler hangs on the wall even in the restaurant and the school now.  Right next to Jesus.  Although we have no idea what they think of each other.  Preininger’s lovely car has been confiscated, unfortunately.  That’s what they call it these days when things disappear and reappear somewhere else.  The car didn’t go very far, though.  The mayor drives around in it now.  Since the mayor became a Nazi, he’s finding a lot of things easier to do.  Everyone wants to be a Nazi all of a sudden.  (p.155)

What Franz in his naïveté doesn’t realise, is revealed through the thoughts of the postman.  There is an army of censors in the basement of the Vienna Post Office, scrutinising every bit of correspondence.  We see his coming-of-age when he goes searching for Otto after he has been arrested.  He refuses to take no for an answer and gets beaten up.

Freud, of course, is at risk too.

The Tobacconist is a sobering tale.  In A Whole Life Andreas Eggar has a hard life indeed, but he lives to see his old age.  The Tobacconist offers no such consolations.

See also Susan’s review at ‘A Life in Books’. 

The translation is excellent!

Author: Robert Seethaler
Title: The Tobacconist (Der Trafikant)
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Publisher: Picador, 2016
ISBN: 9781509806614
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. Thanks for the link, Lisa. I’m glad you enjoyed another Seethaler outing despite it being so close to the first one. I’m still hoping Charlotte Collins will translate his other two.

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  2. I feel like I only ever express contrary opinions! But here I go again – once was interesting, twice is just plain glossing over Austrian nazism. There were real people in Germany and Austria who helped the Jews, so tell their stories and use fiction to address something else.

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  3. I picked up a copy of this in a charity shop last year for £2. Will look forward to reading it now.

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    • I’m curious, have you read much from Austria, Kim? It might just be the tyranny of distance, but I feel as if I hear a lot about books from Germany but very little about Austria, almost as if they are considered to be one and the same because their authors write in the same language. Yet politically, postwar and now, and in dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust, they seem very different to me.

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