I recently finished A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. Written in simple yet enchanting prose, this short book kept me captivated for an entire Sunday night; I couldn’t stop reading until I had finished it at 1 am.
A Whole Life originally came out in German towards the end of 2014, but somehow I only heard about it when it was published in the UK a year later. (That’s how much, in my head, I still live in the UK, while rather feeling a little foreign in my own country…) When I walked past a Waterstones in January I noticed this book with a beautifully designed cover sitting in the shop window, and just glancing at it made me stop, turn around, and walk inside the bookshop.
The cover of A Whole Life depicts a rather abstract image of a hilly countryside, it strongly reminded me of Iceland’s landscape. However, it turns out that the story of this book takes place in the Alps, which I find just as fitting. As the title says, it tells the story of an entire life, in as little as 149 pages. That in it self I found fascinating, and I bought the book immediately.
On beginning to read the story, Seethaler introduces the reader to Andreas Egger, the protagonist of the narrative. It is 1933. In a deep winter storm, Andreas attempts to rescue a dying goatherd. This opening scene sets the mood for the entire book, the mountains, a struggle against the elements, instances of death, and the human attempt to form a life around these factors.
As the book is relatively thin, I read it in one go, not being able to put it down before I didn’t know the entire story of Egger’s life. Even though the narrative is short and simple, it is exactly these characteristics that make it so compelling. Seethaler reveals the life of an orphaned boy who grows up at a cruel uncle’s farm in the Austrian Alps, and faces the changing landscape and environment of the small village he grew up in. Told in simple yet powerful words, Seethaler shows how Egger joins a company building cable cars, ultimately leading to the development of skiing tourism in the area. This transforms the quiet and peaceful valley into a larger town where farmers suddenly become hotel owners, schools are build, and cars begin to drive around. Throughout the novel, Eggers seems like a quiet observer, trying to adapt to the changing environment as long as he is left alone to pursue his own habits and thoughts.
The narrative shows how Eggers finally leaves his abusive uncle’s farm, builds his own house in some distance of the village, and falls in love with Marie, a maid at a local inn. They marry, and Marie becomes pregnant with their first child. However, in a tragic night, their house is swept away by an avalanche, and Marie dies.
On the mountain his foothold was still firm, and not even the strong autumn downwinds could make him lose his balance, but he stood like a tree that was already rotten inside.
From then on, Eggers never finds love again. He joins the forces to fight in WWI and is captured shortly after. He is sent to a Soviet Siberian prison camp, where he remains for eight years. Upon his return to the village after the end of the war, he finds the cable car company he had worked for bankrupt, and is left with no occupation. Slowly, he tries to adjust to live in the changed valley, and is able to find a source of income: he begins to guide walking tours around the mountains. He finds that ‘[o]n the mountain his foothold was still firm, and not even the strong autumn downwinds could make him lose his balance, but he stood like a tree that was already rotten inside’. Ultimately, Eggers dies in his hut in February, and the wintry cold preserves his body, until the post man finds him. The motive of winter and the elements is a reoccurring image throughout the narrative, and reminded me that Nature will always be stronger than human inventions.
In this short narrative, Seethaler manages to tell over 70 years of history, touching upon WWI, the arrival of modernization, and an entire human life. I would recommend this book to any kind of reader, it is a calm, simply written, yet captivating book that leaves you wondering how fleeting a single life can be in the course of history. Personally, I found it hard to close the book after having read the last page. I felt like I had to appreciate this life narrative just one moment longer before finally coming to terms with the end of a book, and also the end of a life.