10 August 2017

The Tobacconist

a book by Robert Seethaler

reviewed by Adam McCormack.

Franz has lived an idyllic childhood with his single mother by a lake near the mountains of the Salzkammergut in Austria.  When he is 17, his mother’s lover dies in the lake, meaning that their lifestyle can no longer be maintained, and Franz is sent to Vienna to work in a tobacconist’s shop. The proprietor, Otto Trsnyek, is an old “friend” of Franz’s mother who, being single with just one leg, happily accepts his new apprentice.  Franz readily throws himself into learning about all of the cigars, and devours the contents of the shops newspapers, to help sell both to the varied clientele. – one of whom is Sigmund Freud.  When Franz becomes infatuated with a girl, he calls upon the advice of Freud which, while it helps achieve his desired ends, is more significant for the friendship the two develop than for helping a love story.  However, this is a time of great change in an Austria and the shadow of Nazism is never far from view.  The new regime has consequences for Franz’s lover Anezka, Freud, who is forced into exile, the tobacconist, who refuses to discriminate against his clientele, and ultimately for Franz.

This is a beautifully written, compelling story of a boy becoming a man in a time of great upheaval.  I  often have issues with bringing real characters into works of fiction, which usually only works in more plot-driven driven books such as An Interpretation of Murder (also featuring Freud).  However, here Freud and his daughter are sensitively portrayed and Freud’s initial advice is more avuncular than psycho-analytic.  Later, when Franz is encouraged to record his dreams – which he does publicly in the shop-window – this is not a vehicle to let us know how clever the author is, but more a way to understand the emotional challenges of doing what you believe is right in an environment of persecution.  Some of the descriptions, particularly those of the Gestapo, may seem like caricatures, and there could perhaps be more examination of the motivations of local sympathisers.  However, this does not undermine the sympathetic depictions of the central and pivotal characters

Robert Seethaler was nominated for the International Booker prize in 2016 for A Whole Life.  The Tobacconist, translated very effectively by Charlotte Collins, is worthy of similar accolades.


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