The Tobacconist


The Tobacconist
By Robert Seethaler
Picador – £12.99

Politics always messed up absolutely everything, so it didn’t really make much difference whose fat bum currently occupied the seat of government – the late Kaiser, the dwarf Dollfuss, his apprentice Schusschnigg or that megalomaniac Hitler across the border – politics messed up, screwed up, fouled up and dumbed down absolutely everything, and basically ruined it one way or another.

Politics does indeed screw things up and dumb ”down absolutely everything.” Especially when left to a misfit representation of an utter naïve and total toss-pot persuasion as perfectly exemplified by Brexit. Not forgetting of course, that in ten days time, we have one of, if not the most misogynistic ”megalomaniacs” on the planet, taking over the most powerful office in the world.

And just like the intelligent, gracious actress, Meryl Streep, I don’t even have to mention the odious toads name, as readers will no doubt, fully understand and know to whom I refer.

Furthermore, were it not anchored in Vienna in 1937/8, this most beautifully written of books, could just as easily be referring to the politics of right now. To the folly induced politics of today – where Brexit and the dreadful likes of Marine Le Pen, Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farrge aside (all of whom, surely pale into utter indifference when compared with who is going to be taking over The White House on January 20th)) – which, truth be told, doesn’t even bear worth thinking about.

Yet, should one need a reminder of what blind faith and utter misplaced, myopic ignorance is capable of, then might I recommend The Tobacconist. A simply stunning book, written by Robert Seethaler who is author of five novels, including the most acclaimed A Whole Life which just last year, was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize.

As told through the relatively innocent eyes of the teenage Franz Huchel, this is a very powerful and poignant book; one which simply brims with all the regaled restraint of a writer who, without any shadow of a doubt, most definitely (not to mention, defiantly) knows his craft.

A mere two pages in, and I was already struck at the use of language and wonderful depiction of imagery: ”Her apron stuck to her body; tangled strands of hair hung down over her forehead, and drops of water were forming and falling one by one from the tip of her nose. Behind her the peak of the Schafberg reared up ominously against the grey, cloud-covered sky, in which blue flecks were already reappearing here and there. Franz was reminded of the lopsided, oddly carved Madonna that someone in the olden days had nailed to the doorframe of the Nussdorf chapel, and which was now weathered almost beyond recognition.

As a whole, these 234 pages follow the thoughts and numerous travails of young Franz, through the seemingly vile trajectory of Kristallnacht, and the eventual coming to power of the all consuming Third Reich – over his dead body.

But I have to say, it’s the overtly contemplative, delicate and heart-warming-way that the book has been written, that accounts for its undeniable genius: ”When the whistle shrilled to signal its departure and the train began to move, the boy hopped off the bench and ran along the platform, waving and laughing. At that moment, something curious happened: all the prisoners at the windows waved back. The boy ran to the end of the platform, then stood still and shielded his eyes with his hand. Even at a distance, as the train gradually dissolved in the morning sunlight, it looked like a huge caterpillar with countless waving legs, crawling away.”

When Trump mocked the disabled New York Times reporter, so too is much of this astonishingly well-crafted book, completely heartbreaking.

In fact, I’m endeavoured to say it’ll be quite a while, before another novel comes remotely close.

David Marx


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