Robert Seethaler — A Whole Life (2013)

Setting: 20th century Austrian Alps

What’s it about? The life of an orphan, labourer, farmer, widower, soldier, Alpine guide.

The arrival of tourism and the construction of ski lifts transforms his life.

When the builders arrive “resembling an enormous herd of cattle”, he hesitates to join the cheering crowds:

“He felt despondent, without knowing why. Perhaps it had something to do with the rattling of the engines, the noise that suddenly filled the valley. Nobody knew when it would go away again, or whether it could go away again.”

Why you should read it: An easy read because it is easy to sympathise with the protagonist; rather too easy given the period in which the book is set. He rarely makes any difficult choices, and World War II and several years in the gulag pass by a bit too quickly.

The definitive Austrian novel? I am happy for an alternative to Joseph Roth and the classics The Radetzky March and The Emporer’s Tomb which provide colourful portraits of the Habsburg Empire, but are too stiff and caught up in bourgeois concerns like army rank and procedure, feeling a step removed from real life.

What does it tell us about Austria? A realistic portrait of pre-tourism Alpine Austria — a different Austria from Vienna and its ringstrasse.

Still on my list: Meir Wiener — The Downfall of Ele Falek. I would still like to read more about working-class life under the Habsburgs.

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