Tuesday, 31 January 2017
A Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler
I must mention that the delightful front cover of this book is what first attracted me. The white-washed buildings and terracotta rooftops of a hillside town reminded me of a wonderful visit to atmospheric Prague.
Robert Seethaler’s, The Tobacconist, is a coming of age story about seventeen year old Franz Huchel. It’s 1937 in pre-war Austria and Franz leaves his mother on the calm shores of the Attersee for an apprenticeship with a Viennese tobacconist. People are wearing swastikas on their clothing and there are Nazis on the Ringstrasse. However, Franz soon settles into a monotonous routine with the one-legged tobacconist, Otto Trsnyek. Before long, he falls in love with a Bohemian showgirl called Anezka, whose erratic behaviour leaves him excited, exhausted and eventually, heartbroken. Who better to befriend than an ageing professor who’s a regular customer to the shop - Sigmund Freud. As fanciful as this sounds, Robert Seethaler creates an engaging and credible friendship between the two and as a reader, I quickly accepted this incongruous camaraderie. Suffering from homesickness and heartache and in exchange for a couple of good cigars, Franz receives regular, informal therapy sessions from the father of psychoanalysis, even as the Anschluss* is declared and war looms.
If I were to highlight something that didn’t ring true, it would be that Franz appears to be strangely unaware of what’s happening to the Jews under Nazi rule, or at least oddly detached from it. He is made to read newspapers every day from cover to cover as part of his apprenticeship, so I imagine he would be up to date with all wartime developments.
Otto is arrested and killed by the Gestapo and then Freud and his family leave Vienna and escape the country. Franz is alone and for a while runs the tobacconist by himself. Eventually he perpetrates an act of rebellion against the state, which seems more personal than political. He seems motivated by a sense of injustice at the circumstances of one particular event rather than by disgust at the brutal system that caused it. In my opinion, if you’re looking for an enjoyable book or deeper understanding of the early years of the 20th century, The Tobacconist is a great read.
* The joining of Austria with Nazi Germany.