Dr Dee Michell reflects on A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, a tender book about finding dignity and beauty in solitude.
Andreas Egger’s first memory is of arriving in an Austrian mountain village in 1902 at about 4 years of age. His mother has died from tuberculosis—which some see as punishment for her living an “an irresponsible life” —and the only reason Andreas is allowed to stay with his uncle, farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, is because money comes with the boy.
Andreas’ second memory is of being 8 years of age and beaten so badly by his uncle that his thigh is broken. After the bonesetter comes, Andreas spends 6 weeks lying down in the attic on a straw mattress. He limps for the rest of his life.
Andreas never feels a part of the family, even though he sleeps in the same bed with the farmer’s children.
For the whole of his time on the farm he remained an outsider, barely tolerated, the bastard of a sister-in-law who had been punished by God…To all intents and purposes he was not seen as a child. He was a creature whose function was to work, pray, and bare its bottom for the hazel rod (18).
The only person on the farm who seems to care for Andreas is the farmer’s elderly mother, who dies when the boy is around 10 years of age.
The uncle continues to beat Andreas until, at the age of 18 and strong from working on the farm, Andreas refuses to be violated anymore. He tells his uncle he’ll kill him if he tries again. Hubert Kranzstocker responds by banishing Andreas from the farm.
Andreas begins his adult life by taking on casual labouring jobs. By the age of 29 he has saved enough money to buy a small plot of uncultivatable land; he is resolute about not farming and instead takes on a job blasting holes into the side of the mountain for a cable car company; cable cars taking tourists to the top of the mountain slopes are about to transform village life.
One of my favourite scenes is Andreas’ marriage proposal to Marie:
A second later sixteen lights flickered high up on the opposite side of the valley, moving in every direction like a swarm of fireflies. As they moved, the lights seemed to lose glowing drops which joined up, one by one, to form curving lines…FOR YOU, MARIE stood inscribed on the mountain in huge, flickering letters, visible for miles around to everyone in the valley (42).
Andreas goes on to survive the devastating loss of his wife, 8 years in a prison of war camp in Russia, and the swarm of tourists to the village.
Towards the end of his life, Andreas concludes that he has led a good life.
As far as he knew, he had not burdened himself with any appreciable guilt and he never succumbed to the temptations of the world: to boozing, whoring and gluttony…He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement (141).
Although a simple story about a seemingly simple man, in A Whole Life Robert Seethaler asks profound questions about what it means to live a good life, about the human capacity to survive upheaval and adapt to change, and about how to live a dignified life according to one’s own values.
A Whole Life stayed with me for days; it’s a haunting, exquisitely written novella deserving of its nominations for the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award and the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. The translation by Charlotte Collins has also been recognised as A Whole Life was shortlisted for the 2017 National Translation Award.