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Robert Seethaler: 'A Whole Life'

Jochen Kürten sb
October 8, 2018

In 2014, the Austrian actor-turned-novelist managed to hauntingly and sensitively describe an entire life in around 160 pages. The slim novel was a surprising success, even abroad.

Robert Seethaler
Image: Urban Zintel

"He had no one, but he had all he needed, and that was enough."                           

This is the story of Andreas Egger, who was born around the turn of the century, raised in a dark Austrian alpine valley and abused as a child. Robert Seethaler, who himself was born in Vienna in 1966, literally sucks the reader into a backwards rural milieu populated with gruff, unfriendly and sometimes brutal people. 

Egger is on his own. But it's not quite true that he has everything he needs. For once in his life, Egger meets a woman, Marie, in whom he falls in love — and who, if fate had decreed, might lead him into a new life. But Marie dies young. Egger is alone again.

'A Whole Life' by Robert Seethaler

Overcoming adversity

"Andreas Egger was considered a cripple, but he was strong. He was a good worker, didn't ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling." 

Weaving a taut yet expansive narrative, Seethaler describes how Egger suffered a beating as a child that left him with a permanent limp, but also with his resilience and ability to laugh at life while overcoming a forbidding and isolated childhood.

He also describes Egger's first work experience as a cable car mechanic. Later during World War II, he becomes a soldier and is captured by the Russians, spending years as a prisoner of war in the vast expanses of the Caucasus. 

As a prisoner of war, Egger suffers "a whole life" of devastation. Returning to his homeland, he becomes a tour guide until postwar tourism becomes too much for him. 

"He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn't afraid of death. He couldn't remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn't know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement."

Under the skin

Spanning a century, Seethaler's novel is a little literary wonder. As if beyond time, the book covers each decade with bold narrative steps that succeed in bringing the events and inner life of his protagonist into sharp focus.    

Man Booker International Prize Shortlist 2016 - Robert Seethaler
"A Whole Life" was shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016Image: picture-alliance/Photoshot

"It is wonderful to see a gentle, tender work devoid of sentimentality yet so evocative and moving being presented to an international readership," wrote the Irish Times in a review.

Egger romanticizes but never glorifies his homeland. He's a literary figure who addresses existential questions of human action and thought, but is also a lively, flesh and blood character that gets under the reader's skin and grows in their hearts.

Robert Seethaler: A Whole Life, Picador/Pan Macmillan, (German title: Ein ganzes Leben, 2014). English translation: Charlotte Collins.

Born in Vienna in 1966, Robert Seethaler is a writer and actor who attended drama school in Vienna. He became known primarily as a TV actor, but since 2006, has published novels which, in recent years, have made the nomination lists of prestigious international book awards.