They are often the most beautiful novels, at least as far as I am concerned - those books that tell a simple story from the heart, but which continue to haunt you through your head, in which you discover new connections and new layers days after reading, when you happen to re-visit the story. A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler is one of those special books. With just a few effective scenes, in this thin book he sketches out the life of Andreas Egger, who spends most of his life in a nameless valley somewhere in the mountains. His life tells the story of the twentieth century, a story of love and suffering, progress and change, happiness and misfortune.
Andreas Egger is a simple man, he has deep complex emotions, but is not able to articulate them. He needs little, has no big dreams, and this book tells you the course of his life. As a young child, after the death of his mother, he came over the mountains to a remote valley where he found a new home with his uncle. In this new home, he was just about tolerated, and fell prey to the whims and fancies of his ruthless uncle, more than the others who lived there. The story is set in the beginning of the twentieth century. One day he defies his uncle, and finds himself alone. He rents an old hay barn on a slope several hundred meters above the village, and does all kinds of jobs to survive. Then he meets the love of his life.
Though he is a timid man, Eggers knows how to conquer the object of his love. Against all expectations, he is able to express his love. One day progress in the form of workers who want to set up a cable car come to his village. Eggers takes up employment with these bearers of progress. The author describes the arrival by writing about a yellow cloud of dust, from which emerge two hundred and sixty workers, twelve drivers, four engineers, seven Italian cooks, and a few others,who form the construction team of the company Bitterman & Zonen.
Egger starts to help with the construction of the steel structures that will make this cable car a reality. When the first cable car is completed, more follow. The valley in which the sound of diesel engines had never been heard, changes rapidly. But Egger's life also changes from one day to the next. War breaks out and he leaves the village.
The bittersweet history of Andreas Egger is told in a subdued way by Robert Seethaler. He masterfully brings his protagonist to life and gives a striking picture of the way in which the twentieth century affected the lives of simple people.
There is so much to take away from this beautiful and haunting book. It is a solemn and controlled book, and the events are conveyed without much emotion or passion, like as if the author is simply conveying what was told to him. The author surprises you with subtle yet significant imagery. Such as when he describes the construction of the cable car, where 'wire cables cut through the sky, entwined with each other like adders when pairing'. Or the way in which the construction of the cable cars is described, as 'scars' on the mountain slopes. This is a beautiful and subtle book, that no one who read it will forget.
- Robert Seethaler
- Publisher: Picador
- Paperback: 160 pages
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