‘Ein ganzes Leben’ / ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler (Review – MBIP 2016, Number 13)

MBI2016 Logo RGB pinkAfter a long and arduous trek taking us to Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, we finish our Man Booker International Prize journey today with one last trip.  We’re off to the mountains to see how a man has spent his life, one characterised by brief moments of happiness and a lot of suffering.  Wrap up – it’s *very* cold out there at times…

Ein ganzes Leben (A Whole Life) by Robert Seethaler
German edition from Goldmann Verlag
English-language edition from Picador, translated by Charlotte Collins

What’s it all about?
Andreas Egger arrives in a small mountain village as a young child after the death of his mother and is taken under the care (to use the word loosely) of his abusive uncle.  Although his time working on the farm leaves him with a limp, a souvenir of a particularly nasty beating, by the time he’s a teenager, he’s big and strong enough to set out on his own, making a living for himself through various forms of manual labour.  Eventually, he meets Marie, a newcomer to the village, and through this blossoming romance, Andreas appears to be headed towards a happily ever after.

However, life is destined to be rather unkind to poor Andreas, and he is soon to learn that however much you suffer, there’s always more pain just around the corner.  As the twentieth century rolls on, and technology and war intrude into the calm of the isolated village, we get to see how his life unfolds over decades.  Marriage, work, conflict, survival, death – a whole life, you might say.

A Whole Life is the kind of book where you could describe the whole plot, and (with a couple of exceptions) it really wouldn’t matter that much.  The novel is all about the telling of the story, the experience of accompanying the taciturn, rather grumpy, Andreas over the years, feeling the cold as he hangs from wires to clear icicles and breathing in the fresh air as he strolls through the Alpine meadows.  As literary tourism goes, this is certainly a book to savour.

One major focus of the book is on Andreas himself and his development from a boy escaping from a horrible upbringing into a shy young man finding his way in the world.  Seethaler takes his time sketching his protagonist out so that the reader can better understand him:

Er war stark, aber langsam.  Er dachte langsam, sprach langsam und ging langsam, doch jeder Gedanke, jedes Wort und jeder Schritt hinterließen ihre Spuren, und zwar genau da, wo solche Spuren seiner Meinung nach hingehörten.
p.30 (Goldmann, 2016)

He was strong, but slow.  He thought slowly, spoke slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where, in his opinion, such marks were supposed to be.
p.22 (Picador, 2015)

These qualities are respected by the people he meets (Marie, his employers, the tourists he later IMG_5426takes for rambles in the mountains), yet while he is confident in his abilities, he is never truly comfortable in the presence of others, preferring a more solitary existence.

As much as A Whole Life is about Andreas, though, Seethaler actually devotes much of his energy to showing how the village his character lives in develops.  This begins with the arrival of a group of men planning to start construction on a cable car route, the first in the region.  Andreas becomes swept up in this venture, throwing himself into the midst of the struggle between nature and progress, and enjoying it:

Seitdem vor wenigen Tagen die Blaue Liesl bei ihrer Probefahrt vorsichtig ruckelnd, jedoch ohne weitere Zwischenfälle zum ersten Mal emporgeschaukelt war, schienen die Berge etwas von ihrer ewiggültigen Mächtigkeit eingebüßt zu haben.  Und es würden noch weitere Bahnen folgen. (p.68)

Ever since the test ride a few days earlier, when Blue Liesl had wobbled her way to the top, juddering cautiously but without major mishap, the mountains seemed to have forfeited something of their enduring might.  And more cable cars would follow. (p.53)

Gradually, though, time (and the war) cause Andreas to fall behind the times.  The young man of the first part of the book, a pioneer in an assault on a new frontier, becomes a recluse hiding away from the increasingly important tourist industry and the new roads which stretch through the previously hidden village.

Seethaler tells his story in an even, flowing style, with little difference in his tone whether he’s describing a walk through the village, the horrors of war or an avalanche rumbling down the mountain.  Having read both the original and the English translation, I was able to compare the two, and for me Charlotte Collins has done an excellent job, even if (being completely honest) I did prefer the German.  Apart from a few vocabulary choices (in particular her liking for ‘bottom’ for the German ‘Hintern’, which is a little childish for my liking), nothing really stood out, and several passages flowed nicely.

What I preferred in the German was more intangible and would have been very difficult to bring across into English.  One example of this would be the name of the local inn, ‘Zum goldenen Gamser’, translated here as ‘The Golden Goat’, losing the dialect feel.  At times (and this may just be me), I also felt the English was a little softer in tone, the hard consonants and multi-syllabic nature of the German giving it a more masculine feel – but that’s really splitting hairs 😉

IMG_5427A Whole Life is an interesting tale and one that brought to mind several other books which devote themselves to describing the life of their main character.  Quite apart from the slightly (!) lengthier longlisted title A Strangeness in My Mind, which looks at one man’s journey through an ever-changing Istanbul, there are two books I’ve read which share the ideas of a long life spent in the mountains.  One is Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones (translated by Lloyd Jones), set in Wales; the other is Catalan writer Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide (translated by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell).  While both these books do just as good a job as Seethaler’s novel in creating a portrait of a rural life, there is one, crucial difference: neither of these female-centred stories ever made the IFFP longlist.  Moving on…

While there’s nothing particularly unique about A Whole Life, it does what it does well, presenting the reader with a picture of a man whose life didn’t always go as he would have liked, but who never wasted his time complaining about it:

Wie alle Menschen hatte auch er während seines Lebens Vorstellungen und Träume in sich getragen.  Manches davon hatte er sich selbst erfüllt, manches war ihm geschenkt geworden.  Vieles war unerreichbar gebelieben, oder war ihm, kaum erreicht, wieder aus den Händen gerissen worden.  Aber er war immer noch da. (p.169)

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams.  Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him.  Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again.  But he was still here. (p.136)

His life may not have been a bed of roses, but for Andreas it was enough.  A life worth living, and telling 🙂

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not for me.  While there’s nothing wrong with it, and I certainly think some of its detractors are being as harsh as its supporters are effusive, there’s nothing here that makes it stand out from dozens of other books with a similar structure.  Interesting and enjoyable, yes – special, no.

Will it make the shortlist?
I’d say that this might be a dark horse for the shortlist as it’s the kind of book that goes down well with judges – short, uncomplicated and an interesting look at a man and his life.  It’s not for everyone, but it may just get enough support to tip it over the edge…

And that’s it – our grand literary tour is over for another year 🙂  I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at the thirteen longlisted titles (and found a book or two you’d like to try yourself).  With the reading and reviewing done, it’s time to turn to the small matter of the shortlists as we get ever closer to finding our winner.  Very soon, we of the Shadow Panel will be announcing which six books made the cut, so please come back then to see who made the grade.

The real shortlist?  Well, I suppose we can look at that too if you’re interested 😉

8 thoughts on “‘Ein ganzes Leben’ / ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler (Review – MBIP 2016, Number 13)

  1. Is his life a life worth living? I wondered at some points if this was a black comedy, with the title the punchline. Egger’s uncomplaining nature seems more rooted in poverty of the imagination than any kind of philosophical acceptance.
    It’s not so much the novel I dislike but the reasons people praise it!


    1. Grant – I think that might be what separates those who love this (and there are a fair few around) from those who didn’t find anything special in it. While I think there is something admirable in his resilience, it’s certainly not my favourite of this year’s crop.


  2. That’s an interesting comment, about things sounding tougher, more masculine in German… I read the first novel by an English author in a German edition (long story!) and thought the hero was much more macho in that. In the second novel, which I then read in English, the hero ended up being this very gentle person. And I don’t think there was such a major shift in characterisation, it was all down to the language. But I suppose that’s an impossible task for translators to capture, it’s something so specific to each language. By the way, I used to prefer swearing in German, for that very reason…


    1. Marina Sofia – It’s akin to poetry, really, trying to get everything across into English. I’m not with you on the swearing, though – English is far better in that regard 😉


        1. Marina Sofia – Certainly inventive, but not very practical 😉 Whenever I lost my my temper in German (usual on the football pitch…), I instantly returned to good-old English four-letter words – and it felt great 😉


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