Monday, 29 August 2022

A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler

 This is not one of my Mr B's subscription books - it's a book I suggested for a recent meeting of the book group I belong to. We wanted a short book for this session, and A Whole Life fitted that bill

My copy is a hardback, and it's rather lovely - I like the design of the cover, which is in white, black, and soft shades of green. The image looks to me like the sea, with heaving, foam-flecked waves. But it isn't the sea, it's a mountain. On the top of it is an alpine hut, and if you look carefully, you can see about a third of the way up a tiny figure of a climber wearing a backpack. He isn't noticeable, but there he is: he has a long way to go, but he's climbing steadily up.

And that really reflects the story. Andreas Eggar is born in a mountain valley. (Seethaler was born in Austria, so I think we can place the valley there.) An orphan, at the age of four he is put into the care of an uncle, a farmer called Kranzstocker, a cruel man whose only interest in the boy is how much work he can get out of him. He beats the child for the smallest of transgressions - spilt milk, a mistake in an evening prayer. One time. he beats him too hard and smashes the bone in his leg, as a result of which Andreas has a lifelong limp.

So Andreas has a tough, even brutal life from the beginning. Even when he marries, and seems at last to have found happiness, fate - and the mountain - intervenes. When he goes to fight, he is captured and held by the Russians for several years after the war has ended. But somehow, it's not a sad book. He never forgets his wife and no-one ever replaces her, but he just keeps on, like the figure on the cover image trudging up the mountain. When he returns from Russia, things have moved on and his old job with a cable car company no longer exists - so he simply finds something else to do, somewhere else to live. He is immensely stoical. He keeps on keeping on, because really, that's all you can do.

Before I went to my book group meeting, I knew that I liked the book, but I couldn't articulate why. But as we talked, it emerged that several of us had been through tough times lately. One of us had recently lost her father, and she talked about that, and how it had been. She said that yes, of course it was tragic - but everyone has tragedies in their life. And in the end, like Andreas Eggar, the thing you have to do is keep on. I talked about my fear of heights: she remembered climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. She wasn't a mountaineer, she said: "But really, it's remarkable what you can do if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other." (If anyone's read my book Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, you may remember that that's exactly what Jack has to learn, when he finds out, while plant-hunting in the Himalayas, that he is - inconveniently - afraid of heights: you must just keep putting one foot in front of the other.)

So, I think that's what chimes with readers of A Whole Life. Here is a man, a very ordinary man in terms of possessions and achievements, who has nevertheless triumphed and, in the end, lived a life he's pleased with. He's known the beauty of nature - and he's also known its cruelty. He's known love - but he's also known loss. And yet, despite all life's thrown at him, he's just kept going. 

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