A Whole Life- Ein Ganzes Leben, by Robert Seethaler translated by Charlotte Collins

This slim novella chronicles the life of Andreas Egger, a simple Austrian living in a mountain village, and spans the 20th century with its social changes and upheavals. The novel combines beautifully lyrical descriptions of mountainous landscapes and snow with a frank and unsentimental account of the rural community in which he lives. Starting with his arrival in the village as a little orphaned boy in 1902, the narrative takes us through to his old age at the end of the century and shows both change and continuity in this main character and his village.

A great story teller, the writer draws us in from the start in the opening scene, where the adult Andreas finds the goatherd Horned Hannes emaciated and near to death in his hut above the village in the deep February snow. He places him carefully in a wooden frame which he straps to his back to bring him down the treacherous mountain path to the village, Hannes protesting and warning of the proximity of Death , the Cold Lady. The narrative then goes back to Andreas’ childhood. Taken in by his uncle, he is not accepted by the other children and this, combined with a broken leg and consequent permanent limp after a beating, means he remains a friendless outsider within the family and in the village.  Nevertheless he finds work on the new cable car construction, finds a woman he loves and makes a living in the village until he goes off to fight on the Russian front. He returns years later in the early 50s to a community now living increasingly from tourism and he becomes a mountain guide for several years. The social developments of the 50s and 60s, like television and the moon landings are related and then Andreas’ decline into old age.

Now it is quite a tall order to describe a Whole Life in a novella sized book. One way the writer achieves this is by his vivid painting of particular episodes and moments which engage us emotionally. One such is the account of the kindly grandmother’s sudden and unexpected death. An animal fight during her funeral procession dislodges the coffin lid and the little boy sees her yellowing hand dangling over the edge of the coffin as if waving him a last goodbye. These moments often involve detailed and evocative description which engages our senses: we can smell the snow, hear the cows’ ‘muffled chomping’, the moths’ wings as they ‘beat against the pane with a barely discernible papery sound’.

The power of these moments lies of course also with the translator. Charlotte Collins has done a fantastic job with the demands of this text. She works with the longer more complex German sentences in lyrical passages to produce rhythmical sentences in English which really work: ‘ the goatherd stared at him out of the darkness, emaciated and ghostly pale, and Egger knew that Death already crouched behind his eyes’. She recreates alliteration to wonderful effect: ‘ the snow fell so thickly and incessantly from the sky that it seemed softly to swallow the landscape, smothering all life and sound’. She works equally well with the different requirements of straight narrative and dialogue and her use of idiom is just right. She has created a really compelling, fluent and readable rendering of the original.

The one reservation I have about this book is its aim to recount a whole life in less than 200 pages. Both when reading the German and the English translation, I felt my commitment and interest lessened in the second half of the book. I felt that massive life experiences, like spending 8 years in a Prisoner of War camp were skated over, and I wanted to know more about the influx of tourists in the Austrian mountains in the early 50s ( really? who were they? German cities were still in ruins, rationing was still in force in Britain, I’m not saying there were no tourists but tell me more about them please). But this may just be me, a matter of personal taste- I remember feeling luke warm about Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna for the same reason, though she’s a writer whose work I generally admire.

So this is a beautifully written book and an excellent translation. I’m looking forward to reading more of both Robert Seethaler and Charlotte Collins.




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