Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was one of my best reads last year so I didn’t think twice about picking up his new book The Tobacconist. Franz and his mother live in relative comfort in the wonderfully named small Austrian village of Saltzkammergut until the day his mother’s lover and paymaster dies. Seventeen-year old Franz needs to make a living and moves to Vienna to work for tobacconist Otto Trsnyek. There, the naïve country bumpkin meets his first love, Sigmund Freud and, most devastatingly, the ugly face of Nazism. The cover of The Tobacconist is strikingly beautiful, but, sadly, the story somehow lacks the charm, depth and wisdom of A Whole Life.
Sigmund Freud is a regular at the tobacconist, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by the increasing number of Nazis in Vienna. Trsneyk stands tall in the face of increasing harassment while Franz seeks Freud’s advice in how to deal with unrequited love. They strike up a friendship of sorts but it doesn’t really convince, Freud seems far to unengageing to be believable. Even at 80, disillusioned and sick, I can’t imagine Freud as weak and unimpressive as this. Franz’s love affair with the fickle Anezka goes nowhere, as does many of the other sub-plots in this story.
The genius of Seethaler is his ability to write simply about simple things to great effect. That was part of the magic of A Whole Life, which was packed with quotable little gems. Sadly, The Tobacconist doesn’t deliver on this front. Instead, it seems uninspired and somewhat random with sudden changes in perspectives that throws you off as a reader. When this is all said, I know what Seethaler is capable of and I hold great hopes for his future books.
The Tobacconist is published by Picador and translated by Charlotte Collins, 234 pages