Sunday, 7 May 2017

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

"How many farewells can a person bear, he thought. Perhaps not even one"

I don't often read and review books in the bestseller list but maybe because I'm really enjoying books in translation at the moment I found myself downloading a sample of Robert Seethaler's The Tobacconist on my Kindle. I'll admit I wasn't familiar with Seethaler's work but I came across a brilliant Q&A in the Financial Times in which the writer described the perfect reader as "one who creates his own story whilst reading"; not all writers would recognise such a significant role for the reader in the narrative. I wanted to read more.

The Tobacconist tells the story of Franz Huchet a young man from the country idyll of the Salzkammergut who is sent to Vienna to work at the tobacco shop of Otto, an old friend (flame) of Franz's mother. The year is 1937 and a new wave is about to hit Vienna with world changing consequences.

The shop itself is a microcosm of life in Vienna. Locals from all sides of the political spectrum call in daily for provisions and copies of the newspaper of their choice. Franz realises early on that 'in Vienna there were as many so called professors as there were pebbles on the bank of the Danube'. Simply working behind the counter exposes Franz to a new world view. He develops a particular relationship with one customer, Professor Sigmund Freud. Their subsequent meetings are convincing, at times it reminded me of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, with the pair talking about more than politics and philosophy as Franz starts to share his girl troubles.

Letters, and postcards 'the kind with the pretty photos on them', between Franz and his mother at home illustrate the differences between rural and urban Austria and the dreams that one generation project on to the next. As Franz falls further in love with the elusive Bohemian Anezka his letters home become increasingly self analytical.

Seethaler is a great writer who manages to depict the brutality of the Nazi uprising through the eyes of a young man dealing with his own coming of age drama. The Tobacconist is a clever and enjoyable read and now I'm off to read Seethaler's earlier novel 'A Whole Life'!

I read this novel mostly at home in Oxfordshire.

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler published by Picador, 241 pages.     

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