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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

A Whole Life - Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins) - Man Booker International Prize 2016

It has been a very busy few weeks here at Messenger’s Booker, the reading of the longlist for the inaugural Man Booker International Prize longlist continues, however the reviews have been a little thin on the ground as something had to give whilst I juggled numerous projects. I’m fully geared up to catch up, so over the coming fortnight expect a review every couple of days as I work my way through the backlog and reveal my thoughts on each of the works on the 2016 Man Booker International Prize longlist.

Starting the ball rolling with the novel “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, and originally published as ‘Ein ganzes Leben’. This is a simple tale of Egger, his whole life;

Andreas Egger was considered a cripple, but he was strong. He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling. He was as good with a scythe as he was with a pitchfork. He turned the freshly mown grass, loaded dung onto carts, and lugged rocks and sheaves of straw from the fields. He crawled over the soil like a beetle and climbed between rocks to retrieve lost cattle. He knew in which direction to chop different kinds of wood, how to set the wedge, hone the saw and sharpen the axe. He seldom went to the inn, and he never allowed himself more than a meal and a glass of beer or Krauterer. He scarcely spent a single night in a bed; usually he slept on hay, in attics, in small side rooms and in barns, alongside the cattle. Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.

Opening in 1933, our novel is set high in the mountains and our protagonist Egger is attempting to take the local goatherd into town, on his back, as the old man is dying.  The natural world being one of the main players here, as Egger and the goatherd battle the blizzard and the elements to avoid death’s clutches. From the early pages we understand that the relationship between this ordinary man, Egger, and the natural world, will be a main theme throughout. As is the close relationship with death;

‘The Cold Lady…She walks on the mountain and steals through the valley. She comes when she wants and takes what she needs. She has no face and no voice. The Cold Lady comes and takes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole. And in the last patch of sky you see before they finally shovel the earth in over you she reappears and breathes on you. And all that’s left for you then is darkness. And the cold.’

This work is a simple tale of a simple man, a whole life, taking the reader through the arrival of technology in the mountain village, the Second World War, marriage, simple work on the land or on the cable cars, with the shadow of the all-powerful, all pervading nature always shimmering on the horizon;

As he walked along the road that ended just behind the village, he had a strange empty feeling in his stomach. Deep down, he felt sorry for the old farmer, He thought of the milking stool and wished he could have a chair and a warm blanket, and at the same time he wished he could have death. He went on along the narrow path up the mountain, all the way to Pichlersenke. Up here the ground was soft and the grass short and dark. Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung so tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.

In a novel that has very limited dialogue, this reflective piece takes us from youthful innocence to aged indifference. Later in the novel Egger attends a funeral and whilst trudging along in the incessant rain, he catches sight of a child watching television and laughing. This juxtaposition of comfort, progress and innocence against battle worn, dreary, weary and aged is one of the many wonderful elements of a celebratory tale.

Yes, this is a simple story, but it is a celebration of a simple man, a recognition of the ordinary, making such extraordinary. Putting major events, such as the Second World War, into the background, they are just further experiences in Egger’s life, this work presents ‘a whole life’ of a person on the periphery, but the reflections and experiences highlight that no soul is insignificant.

A meditative novel, written in simple language, which pauses on the wonders of the natural world, the mountains, the sunrise, the moon, the stars, the ice, the rocks, man conquering the heights with engineering, simple beauty such as the dew on the grass and always being celebrated, however nature being untamed is always present too, an example being avalanches.

As a contender for the Man Booker International Prize? Possibly not, without the experimentation of language that others display, nor a political edge, nor strong allegory, this book is one that will possibly slip at the shortlist hurdle, but as a poetic piece celebrating the ordinary this is a worthwhile addition to any translated fiction collection.

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1streading said...

Just don't see this the same way at all. Does he really gain pleasure from the natural world? Not from the avalanche anyway.
It struck me that, objectively, his life was really terrible, and that he was just not bright enough to realise.

Messy_Tony said...

Thanks for stopping by and for your comments Grant, I'm not sure I meant Egger obtains pleasure from the natural world, he celebrates such (an example being his late life job taking people on trekking tours) and the book gives the reader a detailed view of the natural world. You are correct in the simplicity of his tale, a simple tale for a simple man?